CHAPTER 1.1: PHOBIASThe two major emotions with respect to the future are fear and hope. Let us start with fear and - by way of preview of coming attractions - let us end with hope. There are many fears, ranging from specific fears (e.g. triskeidaphobia - fear of the number 13, santaclaustrophobia - fear of getting stuck in chimney pots) to general fears (e.g. phobophobia - fear of fear itself, panaphobia - fear of everything). Let us look, in turn, at three of those fears - math phobia, technophobia, and neophobia.
Sheila Tobias was exploring why women were under-represented in the major professions. In good feminist fashion, she was searching for the answer in terms of sexual stereotypes and discrimination in a male-dominated society. However, she stumbled across a simple survey conducted by Lucy Sells, in which Sells discovered that 57 percent of the males but only 8 percent of the females entering the freshman class at the University of California at Berkeley in 1972 had taken four years of high school math. Since this was a prerequisite for 22 out of 24 majors, which were in turn prerequisites for professional programs, she had pin-pointed the bottle-neck which prevented most women from entering the major professions.
Tracing the process backwards, Tobias did find her expected sexual stereotypes. Girls were doing as well in mathematics as boys until Junior High School. At that crucial time in their emotional development when they were anxious to be popular with boys, they discovered that it was not feminine to excel in mathematics. They become suddenly stupid. Such work by Tobias, Sells, and their colleagues resulted in a number of courses on mathematics without anxiety, conducted jointly by mathematicians to teach the mathematics and psychologists to reduce the anxiety. Those courses, attended mainly by women returning to university who were having re-entry problems with mathematics, were very successful in overcoming the anxiety and teaching the mathematics. Such courses tended to show that the learning of mathematics is more a matter of attitude than of aptitude, and that the failure to learn mathematics is more a matter of emotion than of intellect.
Although math phobia does indeed shut off many career paths, it is not very disruptive of day-by-day life. Most of us can manage the four basic arithmetic operations which is all that is normally required. If not, then we are able to resort to the ancient technology of our fingers or the modern technology of hand calculators. However, if we have phobia about using such calculators - or cash registers or slide projectors or elevators or automobiles or whatever subset of the myriad machines in our technological society, then we are condemned to live in an increasingly more alien and alienating world. Hence technophobia (the irrational fear of machines) would be even more debilitating than math phobia (the irrational fear of maths).
1 Lucy Sells, High School maths as a vocational filter for women and minorities. Unpublished article. 2 Sheila Tobias, Overcoming Math Anxiety. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. |