The Message Matters: A bone to pick with Jonah Goldberg about positively framing mathematics

Cover art for The Remnant podcastIn the opening of The Remannt episode “American Dreams, Populist Screams” (beginning at about 03:08) Jonah Goldberg and his guest go out of their way to talk about the moral and social bad that negative framing can have specifically on children, then expand it to adults, and then finally society at large.

They’re talking broadly about the negative messaging around the idea that the American dream is dead.

“People would understand that that kind of message can have a deleterious impact on someone’s life path. Right? The same principle applies even when you send that message to grownups.”

Then in the next breath, Jonah says:

“We promised our listeners there would be very little to no math on this podcast, but um, uh…”

Here he is essentially telegraphing to his audience, “we’re not going to expose you to the scary math”, “why do math?”, “math is hard”, “you can’t do math”.  He is specifically providing a negative framing for mathematics. His audience subtly hears “Math is bad!”–a message which is regularly heard, not just here, but nearly everywhere in our society including in our schools–often while it’s being taught. He does it again at 12:38 into the show and even suggests fast forwarding his own show to skip over the math portion! (A portion which doesn’t really appear by the way.)

So which is it Mr. Goldberg? Positive framing or negative?

Can we be a little less anti-math in the future? Some might suggest that being bad at math can make it immensely harder to take risks, to do the hard work, to have the American Dream. Didn’t the American Dream and associated ideas of American exceptionalism mean we could do anything–including mathematics?!

Otherwise let’s go on telling our children as you say:

“the game is rigged, you should just grab what you can, and […] not worry about being a good person or not worry about being a hard worker, or any of these kinds of things. Take the easy path because you’ll never get ahead.”

Going forward, let’s always frame math in a positive light.

I’d much rather hear regular messages that math is useful, math is productive, math is interesting, math is comprehensible, math is doable, math can be easy, math is fun! Or if you prefer a more nationalist, pro-capitalist positive framing: Math is American. Math will keep us on top. Math will get us there. 

Math is good for our children, it’s good for adults, it’s good for society.