It continues to confound and amaze me how often I have the following type of exchange:
Person: “What do you do?”
Me: “I teach math.”
Person: “Oh my god, you must be so smart! I hated/was terrible at math!”
My experience learning and teaching math has shown me that not only is math just another subject that anyone who desires can learn and become skilled at, what’s more it is an innate human ability that everyone has, just like the ability to use language, recognize faces, run, swim, or climb trees. Along with math, all of these are activities that we recognize as skills that can be developed and improved, yet still innately human and instinctive for us as a species. All humans can do math, just like all birds can fly and all cats can hunt.
So, why is math considered to be a measure of “smartness” rather than an innate ability that anybody can develop? I speculate there are at least two factors feeding into the persistence of this pattern:
One is that the Newtonian-Cartesian scientific paradigm, which emphasizes the supremacy and superiority of rational, quantitative, and convergent modes of thought over and above the workings of insight, intuition, divergent thought, and artistic perception, has been supremely successful in the areas of science to which it readily applies, which has led to a kind of arrogant intellectual monism in which rational, linear, convergent thinking is seen as superior to nonrational, nonlinear, or divergent thinking.
The other is that math is generally taught in primary school in ways that are demonstrably inefficient and counterproductive, and that lead to disempowerment and sap intellectual curiosity, so only people with exceptional talent or exceptional immunity to cultural conditioning tend to thrive intellectually in such an environment. In an ideal learning environment, different people would pursue different subjects to different degrees determined by their interest and motivation, but nobody would come away with a phobia of any particular subject, or of learning in general, as is far too often the case in traditional public schools. This is why much of the work I do as a tutor and academic coach consists of what is essentially PTSD rehabilitation therapy for math-related social anxiety.