Have you ever heard someone brag about not being good at words? "I was never really good at reading, but that's OK, because my parents couldn't really read or write very good either, and they're doing OK."

This is a statement you will almost never hear anyone make in public. People who are truly illiterate will work very hard to hide that fact from others, often at great personal expense. There is a degree of shame or embarrassment associated with illiteracy in our culture.

The same cannot be said for the understanding of mathematics. Modern Americans often brag about "not being math people." The self-label of "not good at math" is one that many wear as a badge of honor, pronouncing it publicly with neither shame nor embarrassment. In what other discipline do you frequently hear people half-brag about their inabilities? This cultural acceptance of innumeracy has a very interesting, albeit little known, history.

It all started with Sputnik. Prior to 1957, Americans were hard-working, diligent math students. While not every American had the luxury of studying mathematics beyond basic arithmetic, those who did applied themselves to their studies with the understanding that if they worked hard, they could and would learn mathematics. There was no pride in innumeracy prior to 1957.

After the Russians succeeded in placing the first man-made satellite into orbit around the earth, the American government made a top-down decision to revamp the American math curriculum. This new curriculum was dubbed "New Mathematics," and it was based on the idea that if we introduced more abstract ideas into our mathematics education sooner, we could produce better American mathematicians and scientists, thereby beating the Russians in the Cold War.

The flaw with this plan was that the curriculum was produced too quickly, without proper training for the vast teacher population who was expected to present the new material in the classroom. Teachers who had been teaching for years were handed a thick booklet and told to start teaching this New Math immediately, regardless of the fact that most of them did not really understand that which they were expected to teach.

Now let's think for a moment about how that first day of New Math worked out. Imagine little Johnny sitting in his math class in 1963. Imagine Johnny hearing his teacher say "I'm supposed to teach you some (New) Math, but I don't really understand it." This might have been stated literally, or perhaps just conveyed through the insecurity of presentation that is inevitable when someone is asked to teach something they do not understand. In either case, Johnny hears "My teacher doesn't understand this stuff."

At this point, the real damage has not yet been done. Johnny thinks that perhaps he just has a bad teacher. But that night he sits down at the kitchen table to do his homework. He can't figure it out because his teacher didn't come close to explaining it well. So he asks his parents for help. They take one look at the foreign language on little Johnny's worksheet and shake their heads. They've never seen anything like it.

What conclusion can Johnny possibly draw from this situation? His teacher doesn't understand it. His parents, who are still infallible in his eyes, can't help. His friends are as lost as he is. The only logical conclusion for Johnny to make is that math is too hard for him, or for any regular person. It's okay that he can't do it though, because most of the people that he knows can't do it either. So with great relief he says "I can't do math" and lives the rest of his life believing it to be true.

By the end of the 60's New Math was replaced with a more traditional curriculum, but not before an incredible amount of damage was done. An entire generation of American students were convinced that math was so hard that only really smart people could understand it. And in a few short years it had become completely acceptable to say "I'm not good at math."

This is a statement you will almost never hear anyone make in public. People who are truly illiterate will work very hard to hide that fact from others, often at great personal expense. There is a degree of shame or embarrassment associated with illiteracy in our culture.

The same cannot be said for the understanding of mathematics. Modern Americans often brag about "not being math people." The self-label of "not good at math" is one that many wear as a badge of honor, pronouncing it publicly with neither shame nor embarrassment. In what other discipline do you frequently hear people half-brag about their inabilities? This cultural acceptance of innumeracy has a very interesting, albeit little known, history.

It all started with Sputnik. Prior to 1957, Americans were hard-working, diligent math students. While not every American had the luxury of studying mathematics beyond basic arithmetic, those who did applied themselves to their studies with the understanding that if they worked hard, they could and would learn mathematics. There was no pride in innumeracy prior to 1957.

After the Russians succeeded in placing the first man-made satellite into orbit around the earth, the American government made a top-down decision to revamp the American math curriculum. This new curriculum was dubbed "New Mathematics," and it was based on the idea that if we introduced more abstract ideas into our mathematics education sooner, we could produce better American mathematicians and scientists, thereby beating the Russians in the Cold War.

The flaw with this plan was that the curriculum was produced too quickly, without proper training for the vast teacher population who was expected to present the new material in the classroom. Teachers who had been teaching for years were handed a thick booklet and told to start teaching this New Math immediately, regardless of the fact that most of them did not really understand that which they were expected to teach.

Now let's think for a moment about how that first day of New Math worked out. Imagine little Johnny sitting in his math class in 1963. Imagine Johnny hearing his teacher say "I'm supposed to teach you some (New) Math, but I don't really understand it." This might have been stated literally, or perhaps just conveyed through the insecurity of presentation that is inevitable when someone is asked to teach something they do not understand. In either case, Johnny hears "My teacher doesn't understand this stuff."

At this point, the real damage has not yet been done. Johnny thinks that perhaps he just has a bad teacher. But that night he sits down at the kitchen table to do his homework. He can't figure it out because his teacher didn't come close to explaining it well. So he asks his parents for help. They take one look at the foreign language on little Johnny's worksheet and shake their heads. They've never seen anything like it.

What conclusion can Johnny possibly draw from this situation? His teacher doesn't understand it. His parents, who are still infallible in his eyes, can't help. His friends are as lost as he is. The only logical conclusion for Johnny to make is that math is too hard for him, or for any regular person. It's okay that he can't do it though, because most of the people that he knows can't do it either. So with great relief he says "I can't do math" and lives the rest of his life believing it to be true.

By the end of the 60's New Math was replaced with a more traditional curriculum, but not before an incredible amount of damage was done. An entire generation of American students were convinced that math was so hard that only really smart people could understand it. And in a few short years it had become completely acceptable to say "I'm not good at math."