I’m not a big movie buff, but I’ve been fascinated by Hidden Figures, the forthcoming film about the largely unknown African-American women mathematicians and engineers whose calculations were crucial to enabling the Apollo moon missions. Their contributions are particularly monumental since they came at a time when segregation and racism constrained educational and professional opportunities for so many black Americans. So I was excited to read this weeks’ New York Times profile of the movie.
That said, I couldn’t help being put off by how the article reported on the math aversion of the film’s leads. The opening sentence reads:
Taraji P. Henson hates math, and Octavia Spencer has a paralyzing fear of calculus, but that didn’t stop either actress from playing two of the most important mathematicians the world hasn’t ever known.
The article continues to reference Henson’s and Spencer’s discomfort with math as if it’s slightly endearing, without ever questioning the educational and life experiences that might have led these two highly accomplished women to hate math.
Why is it acceptable and cute for grown adults to say they’re not comfortable with math? Why do we treat discomfort with math as something to be taken for granted rather than the result of our education system’s long-running failure to teach math effectively, combined with low expectations for women, girls, and students from historically underserved racial/ethnic groups and low-income families?
I’m not saying it would be reasonable to expect Henson and Spencer to match the math skills of the women they play. Those women were highly trained, highly skilled professionals. No one expected Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, to fully understand all of Turing’s work and theories. But it’s unfortunate that an article about a movie that has the potential to encourage more African-American youngsters and women of all races to see themselves as potential mathematicians and engineers chose to echo some of the same attitudes — math is hard! some people just aren’t cut out for math! — that create barriers to more young women and students from underrepresented background pursuing these fields.
Compared to other nations that outperform us in math, Americans are more likely to believe that math is something that some people are innately good at and others just can’t learn — rather than that math is something anyone can master with good instruction and sufficient effort. This attitude takes the focus off how schools can more effectively teach math to students, and demotivates kids who struggle in math from applying themselves. It’s particularly harmful for students from backgrounds for whom teachers and other adults have historically had low expectations.
The New York Times‘ treatment of Henson’s and Spencer’s attitudes towards math only serves to underscore this flawed thinking. Let’s hope those who cover the movie in the future do better.