So why do we focus on math? For one thing, math skills are increasingly important for getting good jobs these days—so believing you can’t learn math is especially self-destructive. But we also believe that math is the area where America’s “fallacy of inborn ability” is the most entrenched. Math is the great mental bogeyman of an unconfident America. If we can convince you that anyone can learn math, it should be a short step to convincing you that you can learn just about anything, if you work hard enough.
Is America more susceptible than other nations to the dangerous idea of genetic math ability? Here our evidence is only anecdotal, but we suspect that this is the case. While American fourth and eighth graders score quite well
in international math comparisons—beating countries like Germany, the UK and Sweden—our high-schoolers underperform those countries
by a wide margin. This suggests that Americans’ native ability is just as good as anyone’s, but that we fail to capitalize on that ability through hard work. In response to the lackluster high school math performance, some influential voices in American education policy have suggested simply teaching less math—
for example, Andrew Hacker has called
for algebra to no longer be a requirement. The subtext, of course, is that large numbers of American kids are simply not born with the ability to solve for x
We believe that this approach is disastrous and wrong. First of all, it leaves many Americans ill-prepared to compete in a global marketplace with hard-working foreigners. But even more importantly, it may contribute to inequality. A great deal of research has shown that technical skills in areas like software are increasingly making the difference between America’s upper middle class and its working class. While we don’t think education is a cure-all for inequality, we definitely believe that in an increasingly automated workplace, Americans who give up on math are selling themselves short.
Too many Americans go through life terrified of equations and mathematical symbols. We think what many of them are afraid of is “proving” themselves to be genetically inferior by failing to instantly comprehend the equations (when, of course, in reality, even a math professor would have to read closely). So they recoil from anything that looks like math, protesting: “I’m not a math person.” And so they exclude themselves from quite a few lucrative career opportunities. We believe that this has to stop. Our view is shared by economist and writer Allison Schrager, who has written two wonderful columns in Quartz (here and here), that echo many of our views.
One way to help Americans excel at math is to copy the approach of the Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans. In Intelligence and How to Get It, Nisbett describes how the educational systems of East Asian countries focus more on hard work than on inborn talent:
1. “Children in Japan go to school about 240 days a year, whereas children in the United States go to school about 180 days a year.”
2. “Japanese high school students of the 1980s studied 3 ½ hours a day, and that number is likely to be, if anything, higher today.”
3. “[The inhabitants of Japan and Korea] do not need to read this book to find out that intelligence and intellectual accomplishment are highly malleable. Confucius set that matter straight twenty-five hundred years ago.”
4. “When they do badly at something, [Japanese, Koreans, etc.] respond by working harder at it.”
5. “Persistence in the face of failure is very much part of the Asian tradition of self-improvement. And [people in those countries] are accustomed to criticism in the service of self-improvement in situations where Westerners avoid it or resent it.”
We certainly don’t want America’s education system to copy everything Japan does (and we remain agnostic regarding the wisdom of Confucius). But it seems to us that an emphasis on hard work is a hallmark not just of modern East Asia, but of America’s past as well. In returning to an emphasis on effort, America would be returning to its roots, not just copying from successful foreigners.
Besides cribbing a few tricks from the Japanese, we also have at least one American-style idea for making kids smarter: treat people who work hard at learning as heroes and role models
. We already venerate sports heroes who make up for lack of talent through persistence and grit; why should our educational culture be any different?
Math education, we believe, is just the most glaring area of a slow and worrying shift. We see our country moving away from a culture of hard work toward a culture of belief in genetic determinism. In the debate between “nature vs. nurture,” a critical third element—personal perseverance and effort—seems to have been sidelined. We want to bring it back, and we think that math is the best place to start.