When Bright Girls Decide That Math is a Waste of Time
Answer any two questions from the essay below: “Susannah, a 16-year-old who has always been an A student in every subject from algebra to English, recently informed her parents that she intended to drop physics and calculus in her senior year of high school and replace them with a drama seminar and a work-study program. She expects a major in art or history in college, she explained, and “any more science or math will just be a waste of my time.” Her parents were neither concerned by nor opposed to her decision. “Fine, dear,” they said. Their daughter is, after all, an outstanding student. What does it matter if, at age 16, she has taken a step that may limit her understanding of both machines and the natural world for the rest of her life? This kind of decision, in which girls turn away from studies that would give them a sure footing in the world of science and technology, is a self-inflicted female disability that is, regrettably, almost as common today as it was when I was in high school. If Susannah had announced that she had decided to stop taking English in her senior year, her mother and father would have been horrified. I also think they would have been a good deal less sanguine about her decision if she were a boy. In saying that scientific and mathematical ignorance is a self-inflicted female wound, I do not, obviously, mean that cultural expectations play no role in the process. But the world does not conspire to deprive modern women of access to science as it did in the 1930s, when Rosalyn S. Yalow, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist, graduated from Hunter College and was advised to go to work as a secretary because no graduate school would admit her to its physics department. The current generation of adolescent girls—and their parents, bred on old expectations about women’s interests—are active conspirators in limiting their own intellectual development. It is true that the proportion of young women in science-related graduate and professional schools, most notably medical schools, has increased significantly in the past decade. It is also true that so few women were studying advanced science and mathematics before the early 1970s that the percentage increase in female enrollment does not yet translate into large numbers of women actually working in science. The real problem is that so many girls eliminate themselves from any serious possibility of studying science as a result of decisions made during the vulnerable period of midadolescence, when they are most likely to be influenced—on both conscious and subconscious levels—by the traditional belief that math and science are “masculine” subjects. During the teen-age years the well-documented phenomenon of “math anxiety” strikes girls who never had any problem handling numbers during earlier schooling. Some men, too, experience this syndrome—a form of panic, akin to a phobia, at any task involving numbers—but women constitute the overwhelming majority of sufferers. The onset of acute math anxiety during the teen-age years is, as Stalin was fond of saying, not by accident.” In adolescence girls begin to fear that they will be unattractive to boys if they are typed as “brains.” Science and math epitomize unfeminine braininess in a way
that, say, foreign languages do not. High-school girls who pursue an advanced interest in science and math (unless they are students at special institutions like the Bronx High School of Science where everyone is a brain) usually find that they are greatly outnumbered by boys in their classes. They are, therefore, intruding on male turf at a time when their sexual confidence, as well as that of the boys, is most fra
A 1981 assessment of female achievement in mathematics. based on re- 9 search conducted under a National Institute
significant differences in the mathematical achievements of 9th and 12th graders. At age 13 girls were equal to or slightly better than boys in tests involving algebra, problem solving and spatial ability; four years later the boys had outstripped the girls. It is not mysterious that some very bright high-school girls suddenly decide 10 that math is “too hard” and “a waste of time.” In my experience, self-sabotage of mathematical and scientific ability is often a conscious process. I remember deliberately pretending to be puzzled by geometry problems in my sophomore year in high school. A male teacher called me in after class and said, in a baffled tone, “I don’t see how you can be having so much trouble when you got straight A’s last year in my algebra class.” The decision to avoid advanced biology, chemistry, physics and calculus in 11 high school automatically restricts academic and professional choices that ought to be wide open to anyone beginning college. At all coeducational universities women are overwhelmingly concentrated in the fine arts, social sciences and traditionally female departments like education. Courses leading to degrees in science- and technology-related fields are filled mainly by men. In my generation, the practical consequences of mathematical and scientific 12 illiteracy are visible in the large number of special programs to help professional women overcome the anxiety they feel when they are promoted into jobs that re- quire them to handle statistics. The consequences of this syndrome should not, however, be viewed in 13 narrowly professional terms. Competence in science and math does not mean one is going to become a scientist or mathematician any more than competence in writing English means one is going to become a professional writer. Scientific and mathematical illiteracy—which has been cited in several recent critiques by panels studying American education from kindergarten through college— produces an incalculably impoverished vision of human experience. Scientific illiteracy is not, of course, the exclusive province of women. In 14 certain intellectual circles it has become fashionable to proclaim a willed, aggressive ignorance about science and technology. Some female writers specialize in ominous, uninformed diatribes against genetic research as a plot to remove control of childbearing from women, while some well-known men of letters proudly announce that they understand absolutely nothing about computers, or, for that matter, about electricity. This lack of understanding is nothing in which women or men ought to take pride.” “Failure to comprehend either computers or chromosomes leads to a terrible sense of helplessness, because the profound impact of science on everyday life is evident even to those who insist they don’t, won’t, can’t understand why the changes are taking place. At this stage of history women are more prone to such feelings of helplessness than men because the culture judges their ignorance less harshly and because women themselves acquiesce in that indulgence. Since there is ample evidence of such feelings in adolescence, it is up to parents to see that their daughters do not accede to the old stereotypes about “masculine” and “feminine” knowledge. Unless we want our daughters to share our intellectual handicaps, we had better tell them no, they can’t stop taking mathematics and science at the ripe old age of 16.”
Questions: “COMPREHENSION 1. What reasons does Jacoby give for girls’ deficiency in math and science? 2. Why does Jacoby call it a “self-inflicted female disability” (paragraph 3)? 3. What are the consequences of being math- and science-illiterate? RHETORIC 1. Explain the main idea of Jacoby’s essay in your own words. 2. Does the writer use abstract or concrete language in her essay? Cite examples to support your response. 3. What technique does Jacoby use in paragraphs 1 and 2? How does it aid in setting up her argument? 4. What rhetorical strategies does the writer use in her essay? 5. How does the use of dialogue aid in developing paragraph 10? What effect does the general use of dialogue have on Jacoby’s point? 6. HowisJacoby’sconclusionconsistentintonewiththerestoftheessay?Doe a sense of unity? Why or why not?”
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