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Sunday, November 06, 2005

The T Word

Why is it politically incorrect to point out that mathematical talent is one of the necessary components of doing well in high-level math courses?

No one would expect that just any random kid could make the varsity football team. We all know that a certain amount of athletic talent — perhaps a lot of athletic talent — is necessary to reach that level. Hard work, of course, is also necessary, but it’s not sufficient.

No one would expect that just any random kid could reach the highest level of musical achievement. Some musical talent — a lot of musical talent — is necessary. Hard work, of course, is also necessary, but it’s not sufficient.

So why is it wrong to point out that there’s such a thing as mathematical talent?

Presumably the answer lies in my long blog entry of 10/27, which is closely related to this one: we want advanced math courses to be “a pump, not a filter,” so we don’t want to discourage anyone from taking them. Even a whisper of the reality of mathematical talent (or lack thereof) will discourage some students. So we pretend that it doesn’t exist, or that it’s unnecessary, or that everybody has it. But, as W.S. Gilbert points out in The Gondoliers,
When every one is somebodee,
Then no one’s anybody.
Hard work, motivation, a good math background, and — yes — talent... all of these are necessary components in order to succeed in advanced math courses.

For more food for thought, read Kurt Vonnegut’s provocative short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” which begins like this:
THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

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