Imagine you’re enjoying hors d’oeuvres and a drink at a cocktail party when the conversation turns to favorite magazines and newspapers, and the person you just met to your left says, “You know, I’ve never been very good at reading.”
That would shock your senses. But what if, instead, the conversation turned to household spending and balancing the checkbook, and the person said: “You know, I’ve never been very good at math”? Somehow, that would seem a lot more acceptable to most of us.
The socially tolerated cognitive double standard is deep. That it’s even acceptable is only because, at least in this country, we’ve come to believe that not having an aptitude for numbers is OK, but being illiterate is a far greater handicap. We’ve drawn a dubious line in the sand, and with a wink and a nod understand that it’s fine to admit the failings of our capacity to learn the fundamentals of mathematics but not the basics of A, B, and C. Holding simultaneous contradictory values is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance.
Sure most of us can add, subtract, and multiply our way through most of life’s arithmetic challenges, but ask us to balance the checkbook without our cell phone’s calculator and many of us are lost. Or ask someone in the sixth grade to tell you how tall he is in inches and see how long it takes him to calculate the answer.
The anecdote about the cocktail party, although I paraphrased, was one of the intriguing notions discussed at the recent live taping of the ASME Decision Point Dialogues event on STEM education—Critical Thinking, Critical Choices: What Really Matters in STEM. The comment came from Pat Wingert, one of 12 Dialogues participants, who is a former Newsweek journalist and Spencer Fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. The focus of her year-long research project at Columbia was STEM education. Wingert now contributes to the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media and has learned a lot about how kids in this country learn—or how poorly they learn STEM subjects in comparison to other countries.
Since the days of Manifest Destiny when as a country we held the strong belief that our mission was to spread our virtues and institutions across the continent, we’ve been proud of our educational system (and to a large measure we should be), so the fact that the STEM-related test scores of our kids pale in comparison with those of youngsters from such global powerhouses as Finland and Singapore really stings.
Momentum has gained in the Obama administration to get kids in the U.S. to be more inspired by science and math and to score higher on tests. But it hasn’t been easy. The conflict points are huge and they have less to do with our kids’ aptitude than with pure economics.
In this issue we include a roundup of the Decision Point Dialogues discussion among STEM thought leaders and moderator John Hockenberry, of public radio’s program The Takeaway. To view the provocative broadcast visit go.asme.org/dialogues.
It may be a cultural uniqueness that we place more emphasis on words than numbers in this country, but the consequences run much deeper than our children’s test scores—and this is no cocktail party joke.