Dec 2, 2008

Innumeracy and Privilege

There are a lot of people in the United States who are not comfortable or may have absolutely no luck or skills with math at all. There's a great book I read a while ago called (simply enough), Innumeracy, which lays out why the author thinks that the inability to understand numbers may be a more widespread issue than even illiteracy in the United States, and its long-reaching affects. While I'm not going to pretend that this is anything I know about, I have a few thoughts about innumeracy.

First, I think there's general consensus that the American education system has been in decline for a long time. Clearly, education is like health care, politicians, and any number of other things in the U.S.; if you have money, you can buy the best. But it's if you don't when things get difficult. So sure, there's a clear nexus between quality of education, poverty, and innumeracy. But I feel like there's also something beyond that that may also be going on.

Second, I think the cliched phenomenon of law students and lawyers who don't know anything about math underscore a totally different set of issues. These are clearly people who, for the most part, have had the privilege of going to elite or at least average schools, where issues affecting public schools that serve the very poor are likely less at issue. So what happened if the resources available to feel comfortable and even excel in simple mathematical skills?

I think there's inherent privilege built into this brand of innumeracy. It's a choice not to get up to snuff in math, because it's okay if some people let some subjects slide. It's a privilege because the numbers are abstract - they aren't connected to the very real arithmetic of poverty, the algebra of making ends meet, or the geometries of small and dangerous spaces in which other kids have to study. I think you can learn math in the classroom, but you can also learn it as you're trying to stretch that dollar into a lot more. If you're thinking that you have to manage your money in order to meet your expenses, pay the rent, feed your kids, and try to pay down your debt, you can't afford to say "I don't get the numbers."

This isn't to glorify the poor, or what they have to go through, or to somehow suggest that the poor are better at math because they have to be (and so then the reasoning would be, why deal with improving the public schools at all?). I'm just thinking that it makes no sense to me, and kind of offends me when people who have no deep-rooted mental/emotional block to math (or no chunk of the brain that deals with math gone missing) just dismiss having to learn it because numbers are more a hobby or something to scoff at than essential tools to survival. Basic arithmetic skills form the bedrock of responsibility by providing context (value) and analysis(logic).

It makes me wonder why people who don't have wealth are immediately thought of as being somehow inferior to those with means, when often, without the tools to understand the value of what they have at their disposal. I see this play out in so many ways, and while of course I can't make big assumptions about what this all means, it just gets on my nerves.

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