Thursday, October 23, 2008

Add It Up

Today, another rant about a Newsweek column; this time, it's not Anna Quindlen, but the topic is definitely strongly related to feminism.

Sharon Begley, Newsweek's science columnist takes a moment to speak up on a subject near and dear to my own heart: sexism and stereotypes about learning ability. ("Math is Hard, Barbie Said") See, just in case you're not aware of it, American girls have a hard time with math, generally finding it too challenging for them, and thus we find that there is a clear gender gap in ability and achievement in this area. The thing is, though, it's all (as they say) in their minds.

I love parenthetical statements, don't you? (Okay, maybe it's just me.) "As they say" is really the operative phrase here. The fact is, while girls in America and Japan have consistently lagged behind men in mathematical ability, that gap has been far narrower in communist nations where supposedly they take a more liberal view of the ability and worth of the individual, regardless of gender. It would seem--and to many of us, there's no surprise to this--that girls do badly in math because society has told them that they will have this failing.

The result, according to Begley is something more than simply a self-fulfilling prophecy of "Tell somebody they can't do something, and they probably won't be able to do it," but actually an emotional response. Tell a girl she can't do something, and even if she doesn't believe you, the fact that you gave her discouragement will cause a distracting emotional reaction. How well are you going to be able to focus on factoring a polynomial when half your brain is screaming out to you, "How DARE they say that!"

This fact is very personal to me for two reasons. One of them is that despite that my degree is in mathematics and I know I tend to be very good at it, there was a time around fifth and sixth grade when I struggled with math. I had a couple of math teachers who, instead of encouraging me to do better, essentially took time and effort to embarrass me and tell me I was a failure. I never considered the fact until just now what a boon it was for me to have a seventh-grade math teacher who was completely incompetent. I've always wondered how a guy like that ended up teaching math when he obviously had no skill in the subject, but in retrospect, I wonder if it helped stroke my ego to recognize that my own ability was better than the teacher. (This was the first of many teachers that I had the habit of viciously correcting on a daily basis, pointing out his errors at every opportunity, which came frequently. On the same note, it was probably oddly useful for his ego that he clearly just didn't care.) I realized long before seventh grade that mathematics was the method of understanding reality on a basic, foundational level, and seeing it taught with such ineptitude goaded me into always being the best I could be.

But I was lucky. As a boy, when I showed ability in math and science, society approved and egged me on to greater achievement. The second thing that's always bothered me about this topic, and this one even more so and more repeatedly at every chance it had to come into my mind, was the fact that my sister did not go into a college major in math or science. Sure, all things being equal she might still have chosen the path she did, and I'm not aware of any regrets on her part; she's been very successful in the things she's set her hand to as far as I am aware. What irks me is that I do feel she was shorted in the area of praise for her abilities. I became the math major in college, I was the one that people actually called a "math genius" repeatedly in high school. (Note that when you go to a small-town high school, and then graduate to a large university, you tend to find that most areas where you were considered excellent are now areas in which you are merely average; I don't claim to be anything special today.) Nobody ever called my sister a "math genius", but I always suspected that she was far superior to me.

Once when visiting home from college, I was rummaging through some papers in my mother's house, and came across some standardized test scores. A test taken sometime towards the end of elementary school revealed that while I was above average in my mathematical aptitude, my sister was truly the cream of the crop. Yes, my sister was the real "math genius", but where did that genius go? Fast forward from elementary and rewind from college to the beginning of my senior year. This is the time that you start looking at your grades and test scores and pick what schools you want to look into. The school guidance counselor called me into his office and informed me of what was supposed to be great news. I knew my SAT scores were good, but apparently, in my small rural county of Northern California, I had set the record of highest-ever SAT score. I might have reveled in that announcement if it weren't for the very following sentence with came before the first had a chance to sink in.

"And the person who previously held the record was your big sister!" I was told with a big grin. How about that, Brucker? Consider the irony! Oh, I did.

"Uh... Was my sister informed when she had set the record in the first place?" I asked. "This is the first I've heard of it."

The smile disappeared. "Um, well, I guess not."

"Why the hell not?!" I responded through gritted teeth, and I got up and left. I was always somewhat aware of the problem, but that day, it hit home in a special way. Friends come and go, but my sister will always have a special place in my heart, and I couldn't forgive the injustice done to her or to all our sisters everywhere. As I said, I get the impression that my sister was satisfied with the academic course her life took her on, but I can't help but feel that nonetheless she was robbed of a full set of options.

Thus comes the real problem, the larger problem as I see it. Sexism and racism aren't just bad, but hurtful things that cause often nearly irreparable harm. Our society is closing down gaps all over the place, but will the wounds of the past ever be healed? Within a few months, it appears we will likely have our first black President, but will a single black President make up for centuries of slavery and oppression? When the day comes that a woman is placed in the Oval Office, will that make up for all the years they were treated as slaves in attitude, if not in name?

Prejudice says, "We're not going to allow you to be equal." When pressed, it says, "Okay, you can have the right to be equal, but you will never really be equal." Eventually, after centuries of beating down the oppressed, be they members of a race, gender, or other social group, the members of the oppressive group ask the oppressed group, "Why are you so bitter about all that stuff? It's in the past!" There is a tendency to miss the fact that the fight against oppression is an uphill battle, and even when the playing field is leveled, it's hard to shed the weight of the past.

When Begley points out that the very fact of being told that you can't do something impedes the brain from doing it, she points out that it doesn't have to be personal. A girl doesn't have to be told that she is incompetent in mathematics, she need only be told that historically, women have underachieved in comparison to men, and the discomfort that sets up in her mind is sufficient to impede her thought processes. This is the sort of thing that goes beyond self-worth, and turns into an evaluation of the worth of the group to which one belongs. We tell people that they are inferior for long enough, and some of them believe it; among those who have the determination to not believe it, more than a few will still be burdened by the injustice of the sentiment.

You don't have to be a member of an overtly downtrodden group to experience this for yourself. Think about the situation we have here in America with respect to the learning of foreign languages. There's a joke I've heard a few times that goes like this: "A person who speaks two languages is called bilingual; a person who speaks three languages is called trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? An American." Why is it that Americans have such a hard time learning foreign languages, but so many Europeans and Asians seem to typically speak three or four languages? I know Americans in general won't accept the argument that these people are somehow intellectually superior to us. I personally believe that we as Americans don't learn foreign languages because we've decided it's just too hard. This is not something indicative of any subset of the culture of the United States, but seems to pervade us in general. We either believe that we just can't do it, or we think we might be able to, yet we look around and note that few people are doing it and get discouraged. This isn't even the result of anyone acting prejudicial towards Americans, but merely a culture that has shifted into a sort of self-prejudice. Imagine if it were a matter of prejudice; instead of simply struggling through your language classes worrying about how difficult it is to conjugate verbs and learn the gender of nouns, you also have to keep thinking about how everyone's expecting you to fail.

But here's where my cynicism cuts in and takes over again. Begley points out that things are getting better for women, and they are beginning to be accepted more often as the intellectual equals of men, but will equality--true equality--be realized in our lifetime, if ever? If we as Americans can slip into a feeling of hopelessness over our inability to acquire languages without any sort of external oppression, how can people who have been actively pushed into a state of hopelessness rise above it? Perhaps asking such questions is largely adding fuel to the fire, but it needs to be said anyway.

I don't believe that we escape the evils of the past by simply trying to forget that they ever happened. We escape from them by actively fighting to overcome them. As a father of two daughters, there's a significant battlefront of this culture war located within my own household. It's a hard responsibility that's been given to my wife and me to see to it that our daughters are never told that they are any less capable of anything simply because of their gender. Really, that's the only thing we can do: try our best to raise up a new generation better than the past. Do we do this by never mentioning the sins of past generations towards their mothers and grandmothers, or by entreating them to actively strive to overcome the vestiges of that shameful past? I don't know the answer to that. Maybe it would take a woman to figure it out?


5 comments:

brilliant said...

I decided not to take trig/calc as a senior in high school, which at the time I attributed to laziness. My grades didn't count for college, I wasn't planning to have a math related major, and I'd hit a wall in Algebra 2 where it was no longer so easy to do some things. I literally got hysterical over a few homework assignments because I wasn't able to just whip out the answers.

Years and years later, I realized it was also because I knew the teacher of the class to be totally unsupportive. Because of extra credit questions, I had scored over a hundred percent on a few tests (including midterms and finals) from him in other classes, which produced no apparent reaction.

The guys who were going to be taking the class were pretty upset I wasn't taking it with them, which at the time, I attributed to my sparkling personality, but I actually realized for the first time as I was reading this blog entry that it probably also would have been nicer for them to have me to study with due to my...actual math ability.

In college, I had dreams that some college official told me I had to go back to my old high school to take trig/calc or I would no longer be allowed to get my degree. After I graduated, I had the dream for over five more years, except I had to do it to keep from losing my degree.

That degree being in linguistics, though, I'll point out something about the other subject in this post as well: one of the biggest reasons that people in the US do not speak foreign languages well is that it *is* too hard for us to learn them - when we have people try to learn them.

Even a baby can learn a few languages fluently, and children can learn as many languages fluently as they get enough exposure to (the constraint is more time than ability, in a sense, and the languages could be any languages).

Somewhere around 12, though, almost all people lose the ability to learn another language fluently, due to changes in the flexibility of the brain and nervous system.

People across the US amaze me by marveling that kids can learn any language so quickly, while believing at the same time that it's somehow "bad" for children to be exposed to more than one language before they are "old enough."

I don't know the history of this idea, but I'd guess it's something that used to be more true in England as well, but that they've shed more than we have - sort of like the imperial measurement system.

(And finally, I have to point out that you misspelled "located" in a very funny way.)

Brucker said...

>>>I decided not to take trig/calc as a senior in high school, which at the time I attributed to laziness.<<<

Funny, I chose a math major because of laziness: as I'm sure I've said to you, it seemed the one that would be easiest.

>>>Somewhere around 12, though, almost all people lose the ability to learn another language fluently, due to changes in the flexibility of the brain and nervous system.<<<

I don't know, maybe it's because of my early exposure to Hebrew allowing my brain more flexibility, but due to my math major and my conversion to Christianity, I've picked up a lot of Greek over the age of 18. Sure, I'm nowhere near fluent, but from what I have learned, I have little reason to think I couldn't pick it up better if I applied myself to it. (Right now, the language I'm focusing on learning is VB.NET, so there's not much time for Koine Greek studies.)

>>>People across the US amaze me by marveling that kids can learn any language so quickly, while believing at the same time that it's somehow "bad" for children to be exposed to more than one language before they are "old enough."<<<

I always wanted to leave the girls sitting in front of the TV tuned to the Spanish of Korean stations, but since they seemed to usually be showing soap operas, I decided against it. Besides, I doubt sitting in front of TV is an effective way to pick up language skills.

>>>(And finally, I have to point out that you misspelled "located" in a very funny way.)<<<

Darnit, I noticed that in the original editing process, but missed it somehow. I don't tend to revise much, but I always run through a spellchecker at the very least. "lolcated", indeed.

brilliant said...

Learning Hebrew as a kid should make a big difference (as I feel it has with me). What happens when you're twelve-ish is that you become less able to produce new vowels and consonants (e.g. if you never learned to trill your r's, you may not be able to after that) or you may struggle with new types of syntax or morphology. With English and Hebrew in your inventory, however, you're prepared for a fair amount of linguistic diversity.

It varies pretty heavily from person to person. When I took Spanish in high school, there were people who, in my opinion, were simply unable to learn it (I would guess they were all monolingual when their systems hardened). I theorize that since compared to Spanish, Hebrew is from outer space in relation to English (very similar grammar, not very far off on the phonemes), I learned to speak Spanish pretty well.

Then again, there's also an element to learning languages of accepting "sounding silly." I would hear students in Spanish class (and other foreign languages classes) start to speak with a good accent, then become self concious as they heard themselves. I did not experience this until I took ASL, when I had to scrunch up my face in ways which are socially unacceptable in hearing culture. I had to fight impulses to lessen the grammatical indicators I made with my face.

I also feel there's a genetic component to how much your nerves harden up at that stage. Many people who go into linguistics are somewhat gifted in this area (as I think you and I are...and actually, I suspect Jews in general are, though it's hard to tell with so many of us speaking two and three languages from childhood anyway).

A professor I had told me about a roommate he had (lucky bastard) who did not lose his childhood ability to learn languages fluently AT ALL. They guy came into their dorm room one day, threw a Hindi grammar onto his bed, and said in exasperation, "I'm gonna learn this damn language if it takes me a WEEK!"

Greek's also not so bad in terms of strangeness. Now, you may be able to learn it pretty darn well, but you're not going to be a native speaker, not that there are any Koine Greek speakers around to listen to your accent. Nor will you have "native speaker intuition" on issues like: what's a word? Where's the syllable break? Is this an acceptable way to phrase a sentence? The "subconcious" elements of language, if you will.

When I took Mandarin, I went insane the first day, as the teacher tried to let us hear differences between consonants which sounded exactly the same to me. Had I been a baby, I would have sucked those phonemes right up. As it was, I got them eventually, and when I learn foreign languages, I'm always praised by native speakers for having a very good accent. But I'll never be a native speaker of Mandarin.

I don't know how anyone learns English as an adult, it's such a nonsensical language compared to many others - especially in the spelling department, but it's not limited to that. Linguistically, it's incredibly irregular. Though I also defy anyone to learn Icelandic or Danish as an adult, given their vowel inventory and morphosyntactic processes (I had another linguistics professor who said "Children can learn any language - even Danish!" He was of Danish background and spoke tens of languages, but not Danish).

I was just talking to our cousin about learning new languages and how there's a point where you get over the hump - you're not studying more or less than you did before, but your brain has finally made a good enough map of the new language that new words or constructions just get "stored" immediately.

Learning language from the TV seems to be a mixed bag. Children who are under two are more likely to have language delays the more TV they are exposed to, even if the TV is "baby Einstein" or whatever. I suspect that has more to do with brain function and formation than anything else.

When I was in college, learning a language solely from TV was thought to be incomplete, because language is best learned from social interaction, and the TV is not social. That being said, the same is true of say, tape recordings, and both tape recordings and video recordings are widely used to successfully supplement practice in a new language. I have seen people, especially kids, pick up plain old words from TV pretty well, and new shows are much more interactive than in the past. "Signing Time" is a pretty good one, as is "Dora." To truly learn a language (unless you're like the Hindi grammar guy), you would still need social interaction to make your language usage robust. When I took Mandarin, there was a woman in the first year class with me who was disappointed she wasn't in the second year class, as she'd been studying it on her own with casettes and books for a couple years. She was very good in class, and way ahead of the rest of us when we started, but she was somewhere between someone who'd had one quarter and someone who'd had two quarters at the top level of her ability.

Speaking of which, did I tell you a woman from Iran is willing to teach me Farsi? I really want to take her up on it, but I'm not sure where I can squeeze the time in.

Brucker said...

>>>Then again, there's also an element to learning languages of accepting "sounding silly." I would hear students in Spanish class (and other foreign languages classes) start to speak with a good accent, then become self concious as they heard themselves.<<<

I remember having a few moments in Spanish class when I realized what I thought was a silly way of over-pronouncing something was simply the correct way to pronounce it. I think I was ready for a more technical explanation of tonality/emphasis/whatever, but in high school, everything seems to be simplified.

>>>I did not experience this until I took ASL, when I had to scrunch up my face in ways which are socially unacceptable in hearing culture. I had to fight impulses to lessen the grammatical indicators I made with my face.<<<

Yeah,that was always the hardest part of ASL for me; that facial expression was part of grammar. I'm too busy trying to remember the hand shapes to think about face shapes most of the time.

>>>Many people who go into linguistics are somewhat gifted in this area (as I think you and I are...and actually, I suspect Jews in general are, though it's hard to tell with so many of us speaking two and three languages from childhood anyway).<<<

One of the surprises from Asimov's biography was the fact that he never learned Russian; you'd think that being multilingual and having grown up in Russia his first three years, he'd have picked it up at least moderately.

>>>Children who are under two are more likely to have language delays the more TV they are exposed to, even if the TV is "baby Einstein" or whatever.<<<

Yeah, I think "Baby Einstein" is a load of crap, and I think I read somewhere that studies have shown it's not doing much of anything.

>>>"Signing Time" is a pretty good one, as is "Dora."<<<

I do like those. The girls learned to count to twelve in Spanish before English because of "Dora", and they do seem to suck up the vocabulary on "Signing Time".

>>>Speaking of which, did I tell you a woman from Iran is willing to teach me Farsi? I really want to take her up on it, but I'm not sure where I can squeeze the time in.<<<

*Sigh*, I always regret not taking Arabic when I had the chance... I wonder if it would be easier to learn Arabic script in an Indo-European language?

Brucker said...

Another great xkcd comic on sexism in academia:
http://xkcd.com/896/