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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Best way to oppress women: more math tests!

I happen to be a regular viewer of the “Judge Judy” TV show. The reason is simple enough. She looks (and acts) just like my mother (who is long gone.) So it is nice to be reminded of her.

Judge Judy (who is phenomenally successful by anyone’s standards) can’t add. She counts on her fingers to figure how far April is from October and for anything more complicated she asks her assistant (Byrd) to do the math for her.

Why am I writing about this, you wonder? Because the news lately has been running segments extolling that the Girl Scouts now offer STEM merit badges.

STEM is a nonsense idea being touted by the educational establishment. STEM is so important that no one has bothered to create high school engineering courses for it (That’s the E in STEM.) Science is the same old memorizing formulas as it always was and, well, then there is math.

I have written elsewhere and often about why algebra is a waste of time and why the “math teaches you to think” argument is totally unsupported by facts. I suppose there might be a worldwide mathematician shortage but I missed it. Math is important because the testing industry loves it. OECD and ETS thrive on math scores and panicking kids into learning it.

But, and here is my main point: math oppresses women. I don't normally concern myself with women’s issues, particularly not now when that is all you hear about in the news. But, why don't we ever about the number one oppressor of women? Really? How does math oppress women? Let me explain.

Judge Judy can’t do math. Neither could my mother.(She was pretty successful too.) Neither can my wife. Neither can my daughter. Neither can my granddaughter. Surely this is just odd. Not really. I just IM-ed the senior designer in my company (who was one of the smartest PhD student I ever had):

me: how did you do in math in HS?

me: how are you at math now?

Tammy: Are you kidding me? I'm afraid of the word

Don't get all worked up. I'm not claiming no women can do math or that women have an innate inability to do math. There are certainly women who are accountants, scientists, etc. and many who just love math. That's not my point. Let's focus on the point.

My daughter has a major book coming out in June and also has a very successful career as a user interface designer. Can she do math? She is also afraid of the word.

In 1986, when my daughter was 14 and taking algebra I thought she was going to have a nervous breakdown. Since I was a math whiz as a kid I couldn't understand what her problem was. I still don’t. But I know she did just fine without knowing algebra (as did my mother before her and Judge Judy.) In 1986 I began to examine why we taught math at all. Being a math whiz as a kid didn’t mean I would ever use algebra as an adult. I haven’t.

Back then I learned about the Committee of Ten that created the modern day high school curriculum (in 1892) and read about the math professor who was on that committee who was trying to sell an algebra textbook at the time. So, I figured the reason for algebra was just random and as usual, had to do with money.

I have since changed my mind. 

I now believe that math is emphasized is school as a subtle way to oppress women. It is commonly stated that woman are bad at math for any number of reasons having to with their lack of confidence or male oppression or stereotyping. But how about considering another idea? This is the right question:

So what?

The normal answer to this is that then women can't be engineers or scientists.

And I say again: So what?

Are these the most important professions?   Many women are kept out of a great many professions because of the math test score obsession. They are kept out of professions that do not require mathematics but nevertheless require math scores to gain admission to the schools that teach them  (Medical and law schools rare two good examples.)

My wife wanted to go to medical school but couldn’t because of her math scores. How many women want to get a PhD or a law degree or an MD but can’t because they had bad math scores? Tammy got into graduate school to study with me because I don't care about math GRE scores. Others are not so lucky.

So here is a good idea: let’s make Girl Scouts learn math. I checked the Boy Scouts site and found that Boy Scouts have STEM Merit badges as well. Here are two STEM merit badges for boy scouts: archery and softball.


Maybe I misunderstood. Then I found out that a Girl Scout can get a cyber-security merit badge. I got the idea. They are marketing to parents who are desperate that their kids go to college and STEM is an obsession that parents have been told to have. The kids are simply pretending. That is ok with me.

But what is not ok with me is that we continue to make girls feel less than adequate because they are bad at math. Instead of writing endless articles about how girls are not really bad at math or how there are Girl Scout STEM merit badges, can we simply get over the math thing?

Do I think all girls are bad at math or all boys are good at it? Of course not.  No one is watching out for how boys are oppressed by math either. We just accept it.

My company (Socratic Arts) has way more females than males. I asked some of them how they felt about math. Here is what one them (Susan Ward — a senior designer) wrote:

In high school, I particularly loved science. In fact, one of my best subjects was biology. I found it very easy to understand and sailed through regular and advanced biology, botany, and basic Chemistry. In fact, I had dreams of becoming a marine biologist, or perhaps going into some aspect of veterinary medicine. But, in the end, I was turned off by the emphasis on higher math that is typically required to enter those fields. While I got As and Bs in math, when it came to trigonometry and calculus, I was turned off. It didn't feel as applicable to the world around me in the same way that science did. Fast forward many years, to my chosen career as an Instructional Designer. In my role, I've designed a number of CME programs for the medical field. I worked with doctors and other medical experts on disease state training, as well as education for pharmaceutical sales reps. The more I learned, the more I regretted not going into some aspect of medicine. Being a horse and dog owner, I have also loved learning from vets over the years about diagnosing and treating various issues (when you own a horse, you often have to be your own vet tech!). In my observations, while medical professionals do use math when writing prescriptions, administering medications, and analyzing x-rays and CAT scans, most aren't solving complex, abstract higher math problems in their day-to-day practice. I wish schools would de-emphasize higher math as a requirement for entering careers in the sciences, and instead give students the opportunity to learn the math needed for their field in context with their specific areas of interest. 

Really? Do I believe that math is there to oppress women? I was reading a book by the only guy more radical than I am about education —John Taylor Gatto. He points out that school was always meant to keep the lower classes in their place and that we adopted much of what we do in  school from the Hindu education system which was specifically designed to keep the Brahmins in charge. This is from Gatto’s book (paraphrased):

Hinduism had created a mass schooling institution for children of the ordinary, one inculcating a curriculum of self-abnegation and willing servility. In those places, hundreds of children were gathered in a single gigantic room divided into groups of ten under the direction of student leaders with the whole ensemble directed by a Brahmin. In the Roman manner, paid pedagogues drilled underlings in the memorization and imitation of desired attitudes and these underlings drilled the rest.

A military chaplain, newly arrived in India, named Andrew Bell decided to try the Hindu system in an orphan asylum he was running. He found that it led students quickly to docile cooperation, like parts of a machine. Furthermore they seemed not to have to think, grateful to have their time reduced to rituals and routines. He praised Hindu drill as an effective impediment to learning writing and ciphering, an efficient control on reading development. Joseph Lancaster concluded that this would be a cheap way to awaken intellect in the lower classes ignoring Bell’s’ observation that it did just the opposite.

In 1798, Lancaster opened a free school for poor children in London. Word spread and children emerged from every alley, craving to learn. The Duke of Bedford provided Lancaster with an enormous schoolroom and a few materials. Transforming dirty ghetto children into an orderly army attracted many observers. Bell opened competing schools based on the idea that schooled ignorance was better than unschooled stupidity.

Harvard and Yale were set up originally as the Brahmin schools. (Google “Boston Brahmin.”) I assume that there was no required math score for admission in their first 100 or 200 years. Harvard and Yale were all about keeping the elites in power. The SAT was created in order to enable the lower classes to get into places like Harvard. But, not that many women were going to Harvard and Yale (did I say none? -- because that was the number.)

Harvard and Yale have stopped barring the lower classes  and women are no longer barred from admission.  Yale kept Jews out, but when the SATs came into being, many Jews scored very well and couldn't be rejected. (They were kept out of social clubs of course.) Here is something from Commentary:

By the 1920’s, however, nearly 10 percent of Yale undergraduates were Jewish, and the Jewish applicant pool was expanding every year. Worse yet, to Yale administrators, most of these Jews were poor New Haven “townies,” who concentrated on their studies and did not participate (whether voluntarily or involuntarily) in extracurricular activities.
Faced with what it considered a crisis,  Yale enacted an unwritten quota to keep the level of Jews at or about the then-current 10 percent.

Here is the problem. While they could easily keep women out of Yale, when they did admit them they did too well. In Princeton’s first coeducational class of 1973, women were 18 percent of the class but 32 percent of those elected to Phi Beta Kappa. It is obvious what happened. The requirements for women to gain entry were tougher. They admitted only ones whom they were sure of and they were better on average than the men.

If women were able by judgment of strict merit to be 90% of the entering class at Yale, Yale would flip out. They were quite upset at Yale when Jews started taking over the faculty. The last two presidents of Yale have been Jews and Yale has lost its role as a Brahmin university.   The make up of the student body and the faculty is a constant issue at Yale, not that you will hear about it publicly. In the late 1970s, at a faculty meeting of the Computer Science department we were discussing why Yale never did what we asked of them. One person suggested that we hire a non-Jew to the senior faculty. Every senior faculty member in Computer Science was Jewish and we all knew that the administration was not amused.

We let it drop, but we all knew it was there.

Harvard and Yale have a long history of keeping people out. They were started for the elites and are still controlled, but less so, by the elites. This attitude includes keeping women out. But, how can they do that and get away with it? Math test scores. Using the math SAT they can make sure that they only get the very best women (those who will follow the rules and not ask why.)  Why would Harvard and Yale care about this? Ask yourself this simple question: if the entering class were 90% women what do you think the reaction of those who rule these schools would be? The math SAT ensures that this will never happen. 

Am I saying women are not good at math? No. Hardly. I am saying they tend to dislike it more than men do. I don’t know what the reason is.

The other day I was doing a TV show via Skype, shot from a colleague’s home in the UK. We were discussing math and then the man’s 9 year-old daughter walked by. I said to him “stop her and ask her how she likes math.” He did and she said “I hate it.” (I know that not all females hate math. One of the smartest women in my company has a master’s degree in math.)

If women want to make their lot in life better they should start lobbying against the math SAT. Instead of offering math merit badges in the Girl Scouts, they should be making scouting fun, no?) (And the Boy Scouts should stop the BS. Softball is a STEM activity. Really?)

I will give the last word to Wendy Lehnert (the woman with the math degree whom I mentioned earlier. She was my student at Yale and is a retired professor of Computer Science):

 I taught calculus to premeds at Yeshiva University, to all-male classes of guys hell-bent on getting into medical school. This was a long time ago.

Some of them really got it and some of them didn't - but everyone was determined to get into medical school - that's all that mattered. Calculus was a "do-or-die" hurdle. Nobody ever showed up in my office to talk about how the course was making them rethink their life goals. There was plenty of "point grubbing" - everyone wanted to make sure they got the best possible test scores and therefore the best possible grade and therefore the best possible chance of getting into med school. But there was absolutely no evidence that anyone took the course as a serious indication of self-worth. Calculus was just a hurdle. It was just part of a big game called "succeeding in life" - or - "making it into the club"

A few years later I was teaching undergraduate courses in CS, and I was struck by how many bright students in my introductory programming course seemed to really take programming to heart. Turns out these were all female students, who had probably always gotten straight A's and were thoroughly traumatized by the anything less than an A. Getting a B on a test was enough to make them question their choice of major, their self-image, and their self-worth. The female students were just not playing the same game as the guys. They were actually internalizing all these test scores and then reacting accordingly. I've never seen a guy do that.