Discussion prompt: "Why is it that in society if someone says 'Hey I can't do math, I am no good at it!' that many others respond by saying 'I know what you are talking about, I can't do it...

Discussion prompt: "Why is it that in society if someone says 'Hey I can't do math, I am no good at it!' that many others respond by saying 'I know what you are talking about, I can't do it either!' and everyone laughs and cuts up BUT if someone says 'Hey I can't read or write, I am no good at it!' the whole room goes quiet, eyes shift to the floor and everyone walks away from that person like something was wrong with them."

Someone tell me his/her opinion why he/she thinks it is acceptable to be inept at one of the R's, but not the others in our society and how this might motivate you in attempting to learn mathematics.

Editor's Note: We'd love to hear opinions from English teachers who have struggled with math.

Expert Answers
janetlong eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Math and literacy require different abilities. People often seem to have a natural facility with one but not the other. Literacy, however, is a skill that is constantly reinforced for everyone by use, while math may be applied in daily life only infrequently. For example, a day's routine may involve interaction with cereal boxes, billboards and signs, texting, magazine picture captions, menus, coupon offers, and a good book. Daily math exercises may include glancing at the speedometer, figuring how much longer it will take to get to a location with a quick detour, and calculating a tip. Most of our math is done for us by machines and much of what remains to do can be done by rough estimation. So for those who struggle with literacy, need drives motivation and constant practice makes competence achievable; for those who struggle with math, calculators relieve them of the need, the motivation, and the practice.

When someone blithers over a simple math problem, such as splitting a bill for dinner with friends, then laughs and says "I can't do math" before the whole table reaches for their phones' easy tip calculator app, the general laughter is an admission that even simple math is hard. Math failure is embarrassing, but it is so common that it is easy to find a sympathetic crowd. When someone falters at reading, such as when called on to read a passage aloud in class or at a family seder, there is no graceful way to say "I can't read" in a room full of people who can.

In reality, given sufficient time and privacy, most people can work their way through basic math problems and passages from ordinary texts. Choking under pressure is common, but the response in either situation is often different. The diner with the bill has an easy solution at hand--his calculator, or he can pass it off to a friend who can do it faster. The reader must push through the passage, revealing deficits that may become more pronounced with mental blocking and flushing cheeks. Socially incompetent neighbors may snicker or show signs of impatience, while awkwardness fills the room. The diner and the reader are both exposed and embarrassed, but the diner can laugh away his situation because he is not alone. The reader merely passes through the ordeal--general laughter would be inappropriate and even cruel.

Though math is difficult for many people, it is a fact that the more highly skilled you choose to be in any walk of life, math ability will be a factor. Math is needed to read a thermometer, double a recipe, keep score, frame a house, understand your paycheck and where all the money went, build a business, invest for your future. If you can calculate amortization on a loan, you will be able to find the best mortgage when you buy your home. To get the most out of common office programs like Excel, you need to know what formulas do. The more math you understand and can put to use, the more doors are open to you in terms of careers. At the very least, being able to count back your change will keep you from being cheated, and being able to add the tip and split a dinner bill five ways will make you the designated check handler--a position of true respect.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I will never forget reading that the success of a person in college was directly related to how well he/she did in Geometry. This was frightening to me because I struggled with this subject (Algebra was easy--inductive reasoning) until my older brother tutored me each night so I was able to make A s. Later, this statement about Geometry came back to haunt me when I had to take my first English class-Logic and Language. I needed to think more deductively!

Thanks to an education in a time when hurting people's feelings was done to shake people out of their ignorance, and also thanks to some hard life-lessons, I learned much about the importance of deductive thinking. Consequently, I have always told my students how important it is to really learn the concepts of math, how these concepts translate into logical thinking and how important logical thinking is in life. (e.g. When people vote using feelings as their guide, the results are devastating.)

It's not whether you can perform trigonometry, etc. The question is "Can you think logically? Can you reason?" Mathematics teaches students how better than other subjects. People need to rid themselves of the "stylish" thinking that because they have a computer or a calculator, math skills are unnecessary or superfluous. Every time people listen to someone and realize the logical fallacies, they should thank their math teachers. 

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that the reason for this is that the people who say they can’t do math are not saying that they are completely innumerate.  A person who can’t read or write is at a tremendous disadvantage in our world.  A person who cannot do algebra is not.

When people say that they cannot do math, they are not typically saying that they cannot do anything with numbers.  These people are still able to do basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.  They are able to do the things that they need to do in order to function in daily life.  They can balance their checkbooks or determine who much it will cost them to go to the movies and buy a couple drinks and some popcorn.  When they say that they are bad at math, they typically mean that they cannot do higher math.

When someone says they can’t read and write, they don’t mean that they struggle with writing long essays or with reading Shakespeare.  Instead, they would mean (I think) that they cannot read street signs or get information from websites.  This is a fundamentally different problem.  A person who cannot read or write can barely function as an adult in our society.  In my view, this is why we would be horrified if someone said they have trouble with reading and writing, but not with math.  I think that a person who admitted they couldn’t add $20 and $15 correctly would get much the same treatment as someone who said they couldn’t read or write.

justaguide eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When a person admits to being poor in math it is generally accepted, as one does not have to be good in math to be able to carry most tasks of everyday life. Being poor in math is not taken as something that would prevent a person from being able to add two numbers, count or perform similar basic tasks. A person does not need a thorough understanding of calculus or trigonometry to do things like paying for products bought at the grocery store or counting how many guests have arrived at a party to be able to bring the appropriate glasses of cool drink. For more involved tasks, the availability of calculators has made multiplication or division of large numbers just a matter of keying in some digits.

Being unable to read or write on the other hand is something that has severe implications on whether a person can lead a normal life. This is not something that would just prevent the person from understanding the works of Shakespeare or compose poetry, rather it makes living a normal life difficult for a person in today's world. An illiterate person has to constantly rely on others for basic tasks like reading an address, buying a specific product at the supermarket, ensuring tasks are performed on certain dates, among many others.

This could explain why being able to read and write is considered essential for survival while a lack of skill in math is not treated as a serious problem.

ncchemist eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I suspect some of this has to do with social acceptance of the different subjects.  Let's face it, math and science are still considered "nerdy" subjects (for lack of a better term) in modern US society, especially in relatively immature social circles that are often abundant in school settings.  In this way of thinking, if you are not good at math then that is OK because it just means that you aren't in touch with your inner nerd which of course is socially acceptable.  People in their formative years want to be seen as socially acceptable, so the behavior becomes the norm.

Reading (and writing), on the other hand, are a different matter.  While it is possible to live and survive at some meager level while being functionally illiterate, everyone realizes that in order to truly survive in modern society some level of basic literacy is required.  Those that are illiterate are seen as unable to function as required in modern society (hold a job, pay the bills, etc.), thus they are not accepted socially and shunned to some degree.  Besides, how could a person operate the now ubiquitous smartphone without being able to read!?

If we are to change US society's view of math and science, this basic social perception at the school age level is going to have to be overcome.

steveschoen eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It isn't acceptable.  For many, if you are considered inept at math, you will be cut out of a vast majority of jobs, not only right now but especially in the growing high-tech economy.  A sample situation:

A weekly laborer puts in his application into his company for a promotion, new position.  But, he doesn't even get considered for it because he dropped out of high school.  The reason why he dropped out of high school?  He couldn't learn math.

The reaction of laughing at a person inept at math has become an individual's way at their own lack of self-esteem.  They hear about someone worse off than they are, so they go ahead and laugh at them, when many of the people laughing are in the same or similar boat the victim is.

Now, as for learning math in this context, I can understand how it could motivate people to learn math; they don't want to be the victim.  As far as I am concerned, that is the wrong reason, though.  They should want to learn math to better themselves.  If they improve their education, etc., then they could possibly get that promotion they have been passed on in the past.

degeneratecircle eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I don't understand the knee-jerk reaction a lot of "math people" have when asked about this phenomenon. It isn't necessary or even possible for most people to learn relatively advanced math, and the response that studying math strengthens logical thinking is surely true but not terribly compelling; so does studying biology or history.

An example: it's often said that productive citizens need to know statistics, but what this means isn't clear to me. Of course everybody should know something about means, standard deviations, and, maybe most importantly, misuses of statistics, but is the average citizen supposed to subscribe to numerous expensive scientific journals and read the relevant articles--and conflicting ones--critically (trusting that the data is correct or even meaningful), and only then making an informed decision to support fracking or a war or rewrites to the tax code?

This is obviously impossible, and all the successful people who don't use and don't care to learn math don't convince me that it's the key to a good job and a happy life.

rachellopez | Student

It's not acceptable to do this, however with math a huge chunk of people struggle with it anyway. People will laugh about how they struggle with math and people will agree because in the end most people won't have to use complicated math in their future. For other subjects like English you will need it in any job you get. If someone struggles with reading and writing you shouldn't walk away, you should offer your help. People will always need reading and writing and it isn't uncommon for people to struggle with some of these things.

As for being motivated to learn and excel in math, you should feel like this. It is in some jobs like construction, architecture, accounting, finance, etc. If you were looking for a job in those fields, you definitely need to learn some math. Even if you aren't going to need it all the time you'll feel accomplished that you learned it.

parama9000 | Student

Well, english is our main language, as well as a tool for our communication mainly. Thus, without english, we somewhat cannot get better at math. Secondly, as people grow up in an English-speaking family, they should be able to have somewhat a degree of literacy. Math, however, is a subject that relatively few, but still a greater number of people, have difficulty with. That is why people laugh when it is math, but when it is english, it seems to be more shocking.

Wiggin42 | Student

This statement needs a huge qualifier: Why is this acceptable in Western (specifically American) culture and society. In any Asian country of your choice, (India, China, Japan, anything!) being inept at math is seen as a huge disadvantage; even more so than reading and writing. If someone were to make their ineptitude shown, it would be a huge social blight. Parents won't send their children to teachers who claim to struggle in math. Asimov phrased it perfectly when he said, 

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been.

Just as there is a small circle of nerdy students in school who take pride in understanding math and science, there is a larger more popular circle of students who take pride in not understanding such things. 

Just take a look at any Disney TV show of your choice to see this in action. 

zumba96 | Student

Ok it isn't ok to laugh at anyone no matter what but most people when we talk about think it's just a common issue. If someone says oh I can't do calculus then someone else is like, hey me too, those integrals right?? and most people in high school don't even get math, or maybe they do but they're just saying it for the sake of it, others can relate to it and if they can relate they don't laugh. But have you noticed when people say they are or have been dyslexic people move away like they have some disease. This is how our society works. If its a common thing people understand like a common stereotype they all agree but if its something they don't understand, they run away. I feel like this is because most people think that if someone can't read they think of it as a oh they can't read anything like signs or words when they mean they can't read Shakespeare. Most times those people think that if you don't know a simple thing like reading something must be wrong with you? It's our society??

chrisyhsun | Student

I've always enjoyed math since I "click" with the subject.

The statement above, while true, is also part of the reason why I think society perceives math as different from reading and to a lesser extent, writing. It is definitely more common to describe math as a subject that individuals "click with" or "just get". These descriptions make math seem like an exclusive subject that should only be pursued by individuals who have a natural affinity for the subject area. This idea is further underscored by the fact that it seems a majority of our society deems the "real world" to include very little necessity for math skills. Given the popularity of calculators and computers, there doesn't seem to be a very practical need to learning calculus anymore.

On the other hand, for reading and writing, it doesn't seem acceptable to not "click" with the subject because everyone needs to be able to read and write. Ads of all sorts of consumer products require you to read about what percentage discount you are receiving on what types of items but doesn't actually require consumers to calculate the end price - there are cash registers for that. It is unacceptable to be unable to write an email to a boss, but is unnecessary to be able to perform your own calculations on your paycheck amount or the taxes you need to pay.

Another reason why I think there is a marked different between reading/writing and math is the level. Once the English language is learned, there are fewer distinctions as to what the "level" is. Sure, there is Shakespeare and Old English that is more difficult to analyze, but that isn't anything a quick Google search or a flip through the dictionary wouldn't solve. Writing "on a higher level" also often seems like more of a style than a strictly formulaic approach. On the other hand, there as so many levels of depth associated with math. Even if you can Google search what Riemann's sums are, there is no guarantee you will understand it like you would understand the Google search results of "modern English interpretation of Shakespeare". This further underscores the exclusivity that seems to surround math.

Reading and writing have become cornerstones in our very interpersonal society and are therefore deemed as absolutely necessary. Math, with all its numbers and mysteries, seems to be its own world open to only the select few.

udonbutterfly | Student

The way I look at is that Math is a language of it's own and it tends to be the second language that many aren't that fond of executing. Almost like when many people who speak English as a second language refuse to do so because they simply don't think they're good enough but in reality it's because they don't practice as much. Math in it's on right should be considered a second language haha.

Then with reading/writing it's an expected thing to partake in since it is our FIRST language. It should be a given especially because we use it daily to communicate to one another. Without this skill any chance at living an independent life is obsolete which would mean a person is utterly vulnerable to the world.

mchandrea | Student

In my opinion, it is because of the unrealistic standards set by society that such scenarios, as the one you have stated above, are currently happening. Being inept in Math could be easily be brushed off because it is the weak point of most people; people who are educated, people who have had the privilege to study. A lot of these people find Math as a difficult subject, and they just accept it. I think society generally accepts this as a weakness rather than an incapability. For example, a factory worker who is inept in math would still do well as a factory worker; however, if an engineer is inept in Math, it affects his work and he is viewed as an incompetent colleague. This now will push the engineer to do well in math and motivate him to be very skillful.

On the other hand, Literacy is defined by the dictionary as "the ability to read and write". Therefore, people who cannot read and write are somehow automatically labelled as illiterate and are judged by educated people.

ayl0124 | Student

Math, often associated with the sciences, is highly regarded in our society and linked with the image of success. Medicine and engineering are very sought out professional fields because they boast high intelligence (and therefore money). Society seems to believe in the idea that not everyone can be heart surgeons because it is hard to become one through medical school and its rigorous courses. Therefore, when someone complains of being bad at math, he or she inadvertently compliments the intellectual heros in our society such as Einstein or Steven Hawkings by deeming him/herself of a lower intellect.

"I can be bad at math because my intellect does not compare to that of Einstein."

Most people seem to forget that there are actually different types of intellect. Literature is often looked down upon because "anyone can do it" and it is not a practical career field. Rarely do people make it big with writing a novel. With a DDS however, you can find yourself making over 90K a year. I recently attended my college's orientation where they joked "those who are not cut out for medical school major in political science and when that doesn't work out, they become English majors." Although said as a joke, this just proves our society's hierarchy when it comes to math and reading/writing. 

In conclusion, there is much more of a leniency of doing poorly in math than in reading/writing because (to our society) math requires a higher level of thinking and intelligence. 

steamgirl | Student

Truth of the matter is that everyone struggles with something, no one is perfect. However, that doesn't mean that it is acceptable to be inept in any of the basic "R's". Most people write off upper level math as unimportant because, and in a general sense this is true, it is not needed for everyday life, and unless you plan to pursue a specialized field such as engineering or medicine, there is no reason to be good at it. 

That being said, that does not mean one should write off their inefficiency in a subject and accept that that is all they can or should do. History majors will probably have to know statistics, business major must learn economics, which does employ calculus principles, and I know us engineers are writing reports and technical papers at every turn.

My point being that although it is alright not to be perfect, one subject is no less important than the other, and being proficient in all of them will more likely help you rather than hinder you. The increase pressure the populous puts on reading and writing over math, although might keep our literacy high, will hinder us all economically, medically and technologically in the future.