Adding up the benefits McMaster should help rectify the gap in mathematics knowledge for arts degrees

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On Mar. 23, the Ontario government announced a plan to make financial literacy a component of the new curriculum for the Grade 10 Careers course. This is welcome news. I entered university with next to no understanding of finance, personal or otherwise, and could have done without the onslaught of BuzzFeed-style personality quizzes doled out in my careers class.

The announcement to rectify this knowledge gap at elementary and high school levels is a commendable one. The idea of incoming first years understanding how to manage their finances is appealing.

But this announcement and this commitment to change at the high school level are not enough.

Students are taught from an early age to be afraid of anything related to math, numbers and even simple arithmetic. This is presumably because, for generations, teachers have been taught to be afraid of doing, and, for that matter, teaching math. That has real, tangible effects and nowhere is this easier to spot than in teachers’ colleges.

In an effort to equip student teachers with basic numeracy skills, some universities are scrambling to develop crash courses and last-minute reviews. Queen’s University is creating a new class on essential numeracy skills for all primary school teachers. Lakehead University distributes a mandatory two-hour math competency exam for teachers aiming for Grade 1 to 10 classrooms where calculators are prohibited and, according to a Toronto Star report, about one-third of students fail the test the first time around.

While McMaster does not have a specific education program, many grads see teaching as a career they wish to pursue following their undergrad. But if those prospective teachers are pursuing teaching from humanities or social sciences, they are potentially lacking in both math skills and confidence. The average Bachelor of Arts degree does not require students to take multiple, if any, mathematics courses. This means that the last math courses they took could be as far back as their final mandatory Grade 11 math class.

Couple that with the infuriating stereotype that arts students pursue reading and writing because they can’t do more advanced arithmetic, and the university is setting future teachers and future students up for failure.

This is pervasive at McMaster. From Welcome Week presentations and cheers to the deans of Faculty of Humanities dedicating their speeches at awards ceremonies to jokes about arts students’ poor math skills, the myth that humanities and social sciences students are neither smart enough nor dedicated enough to excel in mathematics is offensive and hurtful.

As a student whose program bridges humanities and science disciplines, this is particularly upsetting. I was required to take a university level math course for my degree. During the time that I was in Math 1M03, I had to block out jabs from peers in both STEM faculties and my own to remind myself that I could pass a math course.

It’s fantastic that the Ministry of Education wants students to graduate to adulthood with some basic financial skills in their tool belt. As these math review courses in education faculties at various universities become more entrenched, I think we will see a difference both in teachers’ and students’ confidence in their math skills. But before that happens, we need to see a lot of changes on a lot of levels of administration.

At the university level, undergraduates in arts programs don’t need to hear the jokes about how bad they are at math. They don’t need to hear them from their peers and they absolutely do not need to hear that from the heads of their faculties. It’s insulting. It’s condescending. And it perpetuates a wide range of other stereotypes about gender and demographics that are more numerous and complicated than I can address in one article.

Math is hard, sure. But so is reading over 100 pages of courseware a week. So is writing so many essays a semester that you develop a formula for two, three, four thousand word papers.

Academic challenge shouldn’t be scary. And no one should make that clearer to students than their teachers, no matter the level of education.

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