Now, stupid isn't a word I would use to describe my mother, and I sincerely doubt she has ever honestly been accused of that in her life. I reassured her that these were not easy topics, and pointed out that I had complained to her for at least 2.5 years now that my students, who nominally should walk into my classroom knowing this stuff, don't get it. I added a paragraph of encouragement at the top of the post, which seemed to help because I got this as a response:
I called her up later in the day to thank her, because I realize that she probably hadn't been looking to learn this stuff before I asked for her help. She is a very gracious woman, and said she was always open to learning, but again apologized for being "stupid".ok I realized that I was trying too hard.I get it now because I accept your math without trying to do it in my head every step.Bring on the next chapter.
After we hung up, I realized that this is a refrain I have heard over and over when teaching: "I'm sorry I'm being so stupid". I've heard it from students in class, in office hours, in tutoring sessions back in college, and now from my mother. The general sentiment always seems to be that if they can't get it on the first go round, they are stupid and incapable rather than the reality that the topic is difficult. My students have gone so far as to tell me that I must be far more intelligent than them to understand this stuff.
There is an article in the New York Times today who headline was "Why do Americans Suck at Math?" and I can't help but think that the refrain of "I'm sorry I'm so stupid" and headlines like this are connected. Connected because they reinforce this idea that people "suck" at math in bulk. There is this weird perception that math is something only special people are good at, that you have to have some innate ability to do it and understand it. That people who are good at math look always use the Feynman method of problem solving: write the problem down, think about it, write down the solution. The idea that math people look at a new math topic and go "Oh, of course! Obviously this is true" and run off and use it seems to be weirdly pervasive, both consciously and unconsciously.
Of course, it would be lovely if this were true. I could have whole years of my life back if this were true. And of course it feels nice to be on the math people side of this, because it makes one feel smart and talented when in your work you frequently feel frustrated. It's like payback for the mockery, real or perceived, for being STEM types with all the cultural baggage that goes with it.
But I think it is also incredibly toxic. If math is something only special people can do, then why should ordinary people try? If we ignore or hide away our own struggles with understanding, we encourage this myth and scare people away who, even if they aren't in STEM, might enjoy seeing the beauty of it all. And it is beautiful. Being able to see the world with math and science at your back is awe inspiring, adding a whole new dimension to everything you can look at and experience.
I know very, very few people who haven't struggled to grasp every math and physics concept when they were first introduced. I think I've known two in my entire life. I was on the 'elevated' math track in school, which means I got all the way through AP Calc B in high school. And I still struggled and struggle with math. What my students (and my mother) never saw was me with wikipedia on my laptop and my calc book open as I desperately tried to understand different kinds of integrals, or tests for convergence. They never saw the early mornings, between classes and late nights in the physics lounge with scratch paper everywhere, chalk covered hands, asking anyone who entered the room, "Can you explain this? What is a [cross product, wave equation, probability density, etc]?" The extended arguments that eventually ended up with the stuffed monkey Harold on one of the professor's door in a plea for help. They will never know how much help I got from professors, from other students, from older students as I struggled to learn this stuff that I now seem so natural at. I'm not smarter than them. I was just persistent. When my students see me reduce a fraction on the board, or quickly do a cross product they assume it's just natural to me, like music is natural to my dad. What it really is is 7 years more experience and work.
Now, is there some natural inclination involved? Sure. But not nearly as much as people seem to think. Being good at anything, regardless of natural inclination, requires work above all else. My sister is more naturally inclined than I towards languages; she also studied more and is therefore far more fluent than I am (as in, actually fluent). No matter what your natural talent and inclination, if you never work at it, it will wither and dry up. And while you may never be a prodigy, hard work can get a person far in pretty much anything that's not sports.
People don't seem to believe me when it comes to math and science, so here's an analogy. I enjoy cooking. At this point in my life I am pretty good at it. I can make recipes up on the fly and nine times out of ten they work. I can tell if a cake is done by appearance and a light poke; I know if my steak is done to my liking by touch. Now, is there some natural inclination at work? Maybe. My mother is an excellent cook, and let me mess around in the kitchen at an early age. But mostly it's because I've been cooking for over half my life. Because I read cookbooks and watched masters and purposefully worked on my techniques, my understanding of the underlying food chemistry, the physics of different methods of cooking. Anything I am good at is maybe 5% natural talent, 95% work. Five percent alone gets you absolutely no where. Ninety five percent alone can get you pretty far.
This is something that we need to work on emphasizing more. We need to emphasize fewer Sheldon Coopers and Charlie Epps, boy geniuses grown up and solving MATH. We need to make it clear that what we do is not magic, not the result of some fluke of genetics that gave us special math powers. Something sparked an interest and we pursued it to the best of our abilities. We weren't destined to become mathematicians/physicists/chemists/what-have-you any more than non-STEM people were destined to be librarians/writers/bankers/secretaries/what-have-you. We chose to be what we are, and we worked hard to get here. Of course, this means admitting that we aren't special beings with math vision. But if we want to encourage people to engage with STEM, we need to kill this myth of "stupid".