You will not be surprised to learn that in the course of my work as a tutor, I have encountered a great many people who are not particularly skilled in mathematics*. Most of them are blasé about this: they will make some comment about how their little brains can’t handle it, (or even in one memorable instance**) how “girls and mathematics don’t mix***”), and then laugh dismissively and beg me to help them pass calculus and get into law school or whatever.
Now, first of all, let me say that some of them, in my opinion, have an actual disability when it comes to mathematics; just as dyslexia can make it inordinately difficult for some people to learn to read, I have absolutely no doubt that dyscalculia also exists. That said, in my estimation, the overwhelming majority of students with mathematical difficulties that I have encountered do not have this condition. So why then is innumeracy so shockingly wide-spread?
My answer is that the difficulty of mathematics is a social construct. Now, mathematics itself is the definitive example of a subject which is not a social construct and I do not dispute this, but the cultural attitudes which surround mathematics most certainly are. I can say from my own personal experience as a child North American society tells people from all sides that math is both difficult and boring, beginning at a very young age. It’s one thing for education students to tell me in a completely unapologetic manner that they are bad at math and expect me to just accept that; it’s quite another when these same people become Grade One teachers and convey the same message, whether consciously or unconsciously, to their students. And this is not even mentioning the messages coming from the media (a broad overview of which can be found here).
I should note that while innumeracy is a problem facing everyone, it is also a gendered problem: women and girls are particularly at risk, but the apparent gender gap in math scores has already been largely explained-away by socio-cultural factors. Indeed, studies have shown that girls who are told that they are naturally worse at math than boys will perform worse than those who are not told that. I would argue that such factors can probably be extended to include not just girls, but anyone: if you tell people that math is hard, what you are in essence telling them is that people inherently are not good at math: psychologists refer to such self-fulfilling prophecies about one’s own innate capabilities as a Human being as “entity theories.”
The question now becomes: if the difficulty of mathematics is actually a social construct, then why does it exist? I’m not precisely sure. One possible explanation is that most people’s brains, by their very nature, aren’t as well suited to learning mathematics as they are to learning, say, language: since mathematics is actually is harder for most people than other subjects that one learns in school, the message gets transmitted that it is hard and then gets reinforced through the psychological mechanisms mentioned above. There may be a grain of truth to this, but I’m fairly comfortable dismissing this hypothesis: in my experience, most people have absolutely no difficulty learning to think in ways for which the evolutionary history of the Human Race by no means prepared them; why, I myself just spent the last two days learning to conceptualize movement in a non-bijective Cartesian three-space****.
On the other hand, I have long noted that, given the extent to which our civilization depends on mathematics for everything from finance to ensuring that buildings remain standing, those of us who are literate in the ways of mathematics inherently belong to something of a privileged class. Perhaps the true reason that mathematics is considered “difficult” is simply because people who enjoy influence or prestige for their knowledge of mathematics have been asserting that it is for generations. Or even that others make use of the “Just World” hypothesis, and assume that it must be difficult or it wouldn’t pay so well.
Whatever the case though, given the fact that the subject basically undergirds all aspects of modern life, I think that everyone who can do so has a duty to themselves to shelve their assumptions and become literate in mathematics.
*As well as quite a few twitchy-eyed pre-medicine students who are perfectly good at mathematics and frankly have no business engaging my services in the first place, but who pay well.
**Back when I was still presenting as male.
***Blegh. Internalized misogyny for the lose.
****This being an impressive way of admitting that I spent the weekend playing Portal 2. I’M A POTATO.