2001 : WHAT QUESTIONS HAVE DISAPPEARED?

[ print ]

Executive Director, H-STAR Institute, Stanford University; Author, The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci's Arithmetic Revolution
Why can't girls/women do math?

Heavens, I take a couple of days off from reading email over Christmas and when I next log on already there are over twenty responses to the Edgequestion! Maybe the question we should all be asking is "Doesn't anyone take time off any more?"

As to questions that have disappeared, as a mathematician I hope we've seen the last of the question "Why can't girls/women do math?" With women now outnumbering men in mathematics programs in most US colleges and universities, that old wives' tale (old husbands' tale?) has surely been consigned to the garbage can. Some recent research at Brown University confirmed what most of us had long suspected: that past (and any remaining present) performance differences were based on cultural stereotyping. (The researchers found that women students performed worse at math tests when they were given in a mixed gender class than when no men were present. No communication was necessary to cause the difference. The sheer presence of men was enough.)

While I was enjoying my offline Christmas, Roger Schank already raised the other big math question: Why do we make such a big deal of math performance and of teaching math to everyone in the first place? But with the educational math wars still raging, I doubt we've
seen the last of that one!

KEITH DEVLIN is a mathematician, writer, and broadcaster living in California. His latest book is The Math Gene: How Mathematical Thinking Evolved and Why Numbers Are Like Gossip.