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Topic: Re: Are some cultures more gifted in math than others?
Replies: 8   Last Post: Aug 2, 2009 12:04 PM

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Robert Megginson

Posts: 1
Registered: 7/30/09
Re: Are some cultures more gifted in math than others?
Posted: Jul 30, 2009 9:01 AM
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Good points, Jonathan. The difficulty with discussions in this area is
that the terms used are often ill-defined and taken to mean different
things by the people engaged in the discussions, and the resulting
conclusions some people take away from them can be unjustified and at
times even destructive when ill-advised attempts are made to apply those

Case in point: American Indians. I happen to be one, and like other
American Indians who are involved in mathematics and the sciences am
deeply concerned about the low participation of American Indians in
mathematics-based fields. That is not a matter open to dispute: The
numbers show it. The low performance of American Indians as a group on
standardized mathematics tests is also not open to dispute: The data is
there. I don't happen to have the most recent data at hand, but when I did
a study of this for the Mathematical Association of America some years
ago, there were some American Indian groups who were performing at
percentile levels in the teens on standardized mathematics tests compared
to U.S. averages.

What has been openly disputed is the reason for this, and the language
used in the dispute is often the same as is used in the blog referenced in
the original posting here, with terms such as "culture" appearing for
which some people will read "race" although they are two entirely
different things, and understanding the difference gets one directly into
the long-running controversy about genetics versus environment as
influencing factors in academic performance. Jonathan's post certainly
gets at some of this. It is also important to recognize that "innate" and
"gifted" are equally murky terms unless carefully defined, although they
are often used as though it is crystal clear what they mean.

Back in the 1980s there was a controversy, flaring in the pages of the
Journal of American Indian Education (JAIE)and elsewhere, about "innate"
factors that might be barriers to the full participation of American
Indians in mathematics-based fields. The controversy was related to
hemispheric dominance theories, although the people engaged in it were
often not clear at all about whether they were assuming that the
underlying factors came about from environment or genetics. (Other than,
for example, the skull measurers; we had a round of them, and they
certainly were thinking of genetics.) The upshot, as was pointed out in
articles in JAIE in the late 1980s, is that much of the research in this
area turned out not to be replicable or was otherwise flawed. However,
this did not prevent some folks from counseling American Indians away from
mathematics-based fields using the argument that the students were somehow
doomed to fail in such fields and would fare much better in other areas.

And therein lies the danger. One cannot ignore solid, replicable
scientific evidence if it is there, but one has to be exceptionally
careful in this area to define all terms carefully to make sure everyone
agrees on what is being talked about, and to interpret the evidence
cautiously, or one can easily end up making the kind of headlines James
Watson did when he unwisely waded right into these very waters. In his
unsuccessful attempt to back out of the mess he created for himself, he
did make one statement with which I basically agree: "We as scientists,
wherever we wish to place ourselves in this great debate, should take care
in claiming what are unarguable truths without the support of evidence."

Bob Megginson
Robert E. Megginson
Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Mathematics
Associate Dean for Undergraduate and Graduate Education
College of Literature, Science, and the Arts
University of Michigan
2216 LSA Building, 500 S. State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1382
734-764-0320, FAX 734-936-2956

"In the eyes of the mountain, all people are equal." -John Denver

-----Original Message-----
From: Post-calculus mathematics education [mailto:MATHEDU@JISCMAIL.AC.UK]
On Behalf Of Jonathan Groves
Sent: Thursday, July 30, 2009 7:12 AM
Subject: Re: Are some cultures more gifted in math than others?

Lauren wrote:

> Are some cultures more gifted in math than others?
> Read about it here:
> re-some-cultures-more-gifted-than-others/

Lauren, this is an interesting question and is worth
considering further. First, I am a mathematician, not a
scientist and certainly not an expert on genetics. Second,
I don't have any reasons to believe that people from one
culture are inheritly smarter or more gifted in mathematics
(or any other particular subject) than people from other
cultures. Third, giftedness can go unnoticed. I would not be
the least bit surprised to hear about lots of people gifted in
mathematics who don't show it by the way they live and by the
careers they have. So I believe that some cultures show more
giftedness in mathematics than other cultures but also that
the probability of a person being gifted in mathematics is
not influenced much, if at all, by the person's culture.

Let's suppose what I said is true (though I can't say for certain
if I am correct, and I am willing to admit I am wrong if I really
am wrong and the evidence is there). Then what is causing these
apparent differences in giftedness of mathematics across different
cultures? Different cultures have different attitudes about education,
place different levels of priority on education, have different levels
of quality in their educational systems, view mathematics
differently, and so on. Some cultures as a whole value mathematics
very highly, and other cultures do not. America is not exactly
very praising of mathematics, especially pure mathematics. Pure
mathematics is more respected in Asia than in America. In Asia,
you are likely to be admired for having talent in mathematics
and embarassed if you don't. In America, the exact opposite
often happens: Those talented in mathematics are labeled as uncool,
and people take pride in their lack of abilities in mathematics.
Many people readily confess that they are bad in mathematics,
but they are not as likely to readily confess that they are bad in
other subjects. Furthermore, many countries have much better math
education for their students than here in America. Math education in
America is in miserable shape. Math education in America destroys
students' appreciation of mathematics and reduces mathematics to
mechanical, boring junk not worth liking and not worth understanding.
And schools in America tend not to encourage students to become real
thinkers in mathematics but to calculate like computers do. So it
is no wonder that mathematical giftedness is more apparent in Asia
than in America because of these factors I mentioned (and others I
didn't mention). And, in general, these factors I mentioned above
should explain why mathematical giftedness is more apparent in
some cultures than in others.

I wouldn't be surprised if I would be much better in mathematics today
if I had grown up in Asia instead of here in America.

Jonathan Groves

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