Saturday, August 09, 2008

History IS Harder for Conservatives

Dear Ms. Macdonald,

I read with great interest your article at City Journal about how math IS harder for girls, in which you try to dispute the findings of a recent study that looked at test scores from across states and grade spans only to discover that there was no significant difference between girls' and boys' math scores. Let's forget the fact that I have no idea why a woman would be so eager to perpetuate a myth that can do nothing but damage to members of her own sex. Perhaps, because you are a writer, you are one of these misguided people who thinks you are not a "math person" and that it doesn't really matter if someone isn't good at math, because we just don't need that many physicists and mathematicians in this world. Therefore who cares if women aren't good at math? But you are dead wrong about that. Today, we need competent mathematicians and scientists more than ever, and, in the future, as anyone who is paying attention can tell you, our job market is going to demand more and more people who can fill these positions. A generalization that men are better at math and science than women is going to keep women where they have always been: in positions in which they can't rise to the top in their careers.

But, let's forget all that, because I have another question for you. Why is it that conservatives just do not seem to want to pay any attention to history? I'm generalizing, I know, but it seems to me that whenever I read articles in such publications as City Journal, I am always amazed at how little historical knowledge the writers seem to have. This is interesting coming from someone like me, who is not a historian. Even so, I do bother to have a fleeting acquaintance with the past (and I would certainly make sure my acquaintance was more than just fleeting were I to be someone who made a living writing articles that commented on social and political events of the present) and to let past experience inform me. Perhaps, even though I am not a historian, because I am a liberal, I just happen to have some sort of gene that causes history to come easy to me. Maybe if we were to look at history test scores of American children, we would discover that it's the liberals who excel in the subject, the liberals who know which events led to the devastation of societies, which events prevented devastation, and thus, the liberals who should get all the top government positions in this country, because conservatives just don't have the capacity to understand history's complexity. After all, this is what you argue vis a vis math and science and men and women, that women should not be getting the top positions in the field of math and science, that these should be left to the men who have greater abilities in this area, that if we have quotas based on sex, we will not be getting those who have the natural, superior talent in the field.

You may be wondering why reading your article has caused me to draw this conclusion. After all, you weren't writing about history. You were writing about math. Well, I seem to be doing something that we non-mathematically-brained women shouldn't be able to do. I'm making connections (making connections is a key mathematical skill. I bet you didn't know that. I bet your idea of math is really just arithmetic. I bet you didn't know that math is all about patterns, as well. Or that math is all about problem solving -- and I don't mean plugging numbers into algorithms and formulas when I say "problem solving"). If you had decided to try to make connections between what you were saying and historical fact, you might have done a little research. That research might have revealed that in Pythagoras's (you do know who Pythagoras was, don't you?) community in Croton, women were full members and teachers. Then you might have asked yourself: if women were full members and teachers of this early mathematical community, quite obviously sharing mathematical capabilities with men, what happened? Then you might have looked to more recent times, to times when education in such areas as science and math was not considered important for women, when girls had such things as needlework that needed to be learned (incidentally, such endeavors as needlework and sewing cannot be done without mathematical ability). You might have read about women like Emmy Noether who made fundamental contributions to algebra. She was on the team that was created to help Einstein with the relativistic theory of gravity. However, in 1915, she was denied a position at The University of Gottingen because she was a woman.

You might have asked yourself other questions as well, such as: 200 years ago, would you, a woman, have held a position writing articles for a magazine? Why, of course not. 200 years ago, we all know that women's writing talent couldn't compare to that of men. Women who could write were few and far between. Men were writers. Women were homemakers. Hmmm...I wonder if it was some horrible "classic feminist trope for how our sexist society destroys girls' innate abilities" that helped women break into the field of journalism and to prove that they could write with the best of the men. I suppose we could trace the history of journalism and find out, but then, again, maybe that would just be too taxing for your pretty little conservative head.

With All Due Respect,

Emily Barton

Cross-posted at: What We Said.


Eva said...

Hear, hear! I love you Emily. :D

I was the only girl on my math team in middle school, and I was also the only one who made it to the finals and then won. :p And in elementary I competed in 24-a really fun math game where a card has four numbers on it and you have to figure out how to make 24. That being said, nowadays I always say I'm not a math person just because verbal stuff seems to come so much easier. But I'm going to stop saying that, because I love puzzles and patterns.

Since you seem to be pro-math, are there any interesting math books for lay people like there are science books? Does that question make sense to you? (Maybe my verbal skills aren't as high as I would like...) Like a math equivalent of Genome by Matt Ridley, which is all about presenting biology to a general audience.

Emily Barton said...

Eva, yes, as a matter of fact, there are plenty of good math books out there for lay people. I highly recommend _The Math Gene_ by Keith Devlin. And right now, I'm in the midst of reading another one called _What Counts_ by Brian Butterworth (for the science book challenge). Don't know how either of these compare to _Genome_, because I haven't read that one, but they will definitely convince you that we ALL have innate mathematical capabilities. Some people do suffer from dyscalculia (the math equivalent of dyslexia), but, like all disabilities, it's an exception not the norm.

Marissa Dupont said...

Well done. You rule.

Anonymous said...

Well said!

Anne Camille said...

I thought for years that I was 'mathmatically challenged'. This was a big embarassement for me because I work in a techinical field. But, my issues with arithmetic are similar to my issues with spelling/reading -- I will never win any spelling bees because I have to write out the word in order to spell it; I can dial a known phone number but I can't tell you what it is unless I'm looking at a keypad. I was surprised (and a little amused) when a educational psychologist (who was evaluating my child) explained that I might have a form of dyscalculia, a disability I had never heard of before. I'll never be able to translate an IP address into hexadex without pad & paper, but it doesn't mean that I'm not capable of understanding maths.

I was told, in 8th grade, that I should take basic math (non-college prep) because girls didn't need to know math, while the boy who sat next to me during the placement test -- and threatened to harm me if I reported that he copied from my paper -- was told that it might be a little difficult, but he should take the college prep track. This was in the early 70s. I'd like to think that this would not happen today, but I think in more subtle ways that it still does.

This could be an entire post, rather than a comment, but I think that there are lots of reasons why women are a minority in my profession (IT), but I think it has little to do with women's inate ability to understand mathmatics!

Anne Camille said...

PS -- And I have never understood why we Americans use the term math instead of maths like the majority of the English-speaking world. Math is really more than just one thing!

Anonymous said...

This is so good. Did you send it to her? linser

Watson Woodworth said...

As a right wing writer I can tell you why she would sell out her own sex/gender: Merry bushels of cash.
Conservatism has become an industry.
Not only do they mean to destroy the public sphere altogether, so they can feed us DIOXIN/LEAD FLAKES! for breakfast and nobody will challenge them on it, but they've figured out how to make themselves even richer on the way.

Anonymous said...

GREAT post. I hope she reads it.

Anonymous said...

You go Emily! Well said! When it comes to math I am not the best at numbers but I do quite well with concepts and theories. And geometry. I used to be very good at geometry. In high school all my friends asked me for the answers. It has been so long since I have done anything besides basic everyday math that I have forgotten most everything which makes me sort of sad when I think about it.

Emily Barton said...

Gollygee, thanks :-)!

BOBG (love the name), thanks for stopping by and for the compliment.

Cam, I hate that "girls don't need to know math" phrase. You know, even in the days when most "girls" could look forward to a lifetime of cooking and cleaning and raising children, they had to know quite a bit about math. It's not too easy to learn to cook if one doesn't know how to measure or to double or triple a recipe. In fact, lots of things can't be done without measuring: sewing, figuring out how much carpet to buy for a room or how much paint to buy to paint the house. And how does one manage a household budget without doing math? BTW, when I was in 7th-grade pre-algebra, the boy who sat next to me cheated off my tests all year. I had a really hard time trying to keep him from doing that. Oh, and I don't understand the "math" v. "maths" thing, either.

Linser, no. I don't need the attack I'm sure I'd get in place of a true debate or well-researched response.

Nigel, you're right: when did conservatives ever care about anything other than money?

Court, thanks!

Stef, LOTS of people aren't good at numbers (that's really only arithmetic), even mathematicians (read _The Math Gene_ for more on that). That's why we have calculators to do that stuff for us when it gets too tedious. Concepts and theories are what's important.

Anonymous said...

About mathematicians not necessarily being at ease with numbers: I remember my math teacher in college (no translation for our French math-intensive prep classes after high school and before engineering school) spending a painful ten minutes to solve 1/2 - 1/3 on the blackboard, while the whole classroom started giggling, then suggesting stupid answers ("-43/17 !"), then trying to help him out ("three sixths minus two sixths"). We had been worshipping him before that, but at that moment, we knew he was human.

Susan said...

Yaay! i think I have dyscalculia! and I learned a new word! :-) You and Eva, I bow to you both, goddesses in my world because you rock! sadly, I failed Grade 10 math and had to take it again just to squeak by with a 52 (and I have always suspected that my math teacher gave me the three marks for 'effort' more than actual ability, since he was tutoring me also in it.) I am definitely word girl. Though, I LOVE geometry (I can see it! IT has limits! yaay!) and I can do patterns, so maybe I have some math(s) skills after all :-)
Excellent post Emily, and well-said.

Emily Barton said...

It's all in the teaching, Susan. If you love and can understand geometry, then you are a math AND a word person (it's just no one ever told you that).