He lost me again when he discussed the gender gap. I appreciated his acknowledgement that while girls tend to do well in the classroom, they lag behind boys in the math sections of standardized exams like the SAT, and that this lag can prevent them from getting into top universities or being named as merit scholars. But that’s where his argument ended, leading me to wonder whether he truly believes girls’ test performance should be enough to discourage them from continuing with abstract math, or if he was just being provocative.
When I asked Hacker about this, he made it clear he was criticizing the tests, not the girls’ ability: “Standardized tests like SAT, ACT, and now the Common Core,” he said, “fail to show the true mathematical talents of girls and young women.”
I cannot argue with him there, but surely the simpler solution is to stop relying so much on such tests? Again, isn’t the problem the system, not the math?
But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Girls don’t need any more reasons to shun advanced math. Neither does anyone, for that matter. Hacker’s solution to repackage math and strip it of its more abstract elements, whether useful or not, will do little to ease this country’s belief in the myth that math is for geniuses. It won’t make math and STEM less elitist.
And this elitism puts guys like Tanton on the hook. I believe Tanton when he says he shuns the genius myth and says he wants to bring the joy of math to everyone. I appreciate that he is working on ways to make it, as he put it to me when I contacted him later, less about “getting through a heavy curriculum and passing high-stakes tests,” and less like a boot camp.
The problem is there are too many others in the math establishment who think sink or swim is the best approach, particularly at the college level. Worse, they believe, covertly and overtly, that those who understand math look a certain way—male, white, or Asian, from a certain social class. And if an aspiring mathematician does not fit that mold, he or she had better be a genius or they’re not worth the waste of graph paper.
And that is why, for all their implementation issues, the Common Core standards should be applauded, because they say to students: I expect more. I believe you can do this. You are at least worthy of trying.
Again, I know Tanton, as a Common Core supporter, knows this, though his take, while realistic, is depressing: “For those that encourage and practice those awful biases you describe—I really don't think they are going to go away.”
Probably not, but that is why it is vital for Tanton and his like-minded colleagues to be even more forceful in calling them out, and to resist circling the wagons when a provocateur like Hacker pokes his head in their mathematical midst.
So, as a math-phobe-turned-math-phile, I say this to Hacker: I appreciate you for stirring things up, but I’m glad I took on the standard courses, even if I failed. And yes, failing geometry and having to retake it meant I never got into UCLA. But I did well elsewhere. And yes, I was lucky.