From last week’s Foxtrot comic, another take at the cultural background conversation of math.
Who is bad at math?
At one level, a puzzle. The top part, the part that starts with “16-11-13-5” is not a subtraction problem. It is a sequence of numbers, separated by hyphens, where each number stands for a letter. The “key” gives information as to what number is associated with what letter. It turns out that each letter corresponds to a unique number from 1 to 26.
So, a nice puzzle for those interested in these kinds of puzzles, and something skipped or ignored by those who are not, right? Well, except. In the math in the comics series, I have been looking at cultural backgrounds that the comic strip reveals about mathematics. In this strip, we can detect something about how Jason relates to math. I will suggest that he sees math as a secret handshake, and as a – not to put too fine a point on it – a put down. For some of us, math is an area where we can feel secretly or not so secretly superior, bask in our superiority, and invested in there being a large group of people who do not measure up.
Let’s try a little thought experiment. Imagine that there is a country, in all respects exactly like ours, but with one difference. Their system of education produces people who achieve better math scores than we do here. Moreover, in that country the highest math scores are routinely achieved by women. Wouldn’t you be the least bit suspicious that the way they do math must be off? That whatever they do must not be real math? That somehow they must have lowered their standards relative to ours? Or that they must have done something that held back their male students?