In films its acceptable to declare that you A) Are not a math person; B) Aren't good at math; C) Hate math, or D) All of the above.
One of the hurdles facing teachers trying to convince students that mathematical ability isn't just for geniuses is the fact that disdain for math is all around us. It's socially acceptable to declare that you A) Are not a math person; B) Aren't good at math; C) Hate math, or D) All of the above. And, as former high school math teacher and current Stanford doctoral fellow Dan Meyer discovered, Hollywood plays a part in spreading the cultural mindset that math is only for nerds and the exceptionally bright among us.
Seriously, do you ever hear your friends or colleagues saying that they hate reading or aren't good at it? Not knowing how to read is so stigmatized that for years American Idol winner Fantasia hid her illiteracy. But if you admit you don't know how to find the area of a triangle or how to solve a quadratic equation, no one bats an eye.
Indeed, Meyer writes that he went to movie quote search site SubZin, "searched for 'math,' crossed off the (few) movies that had anything positive or neutral to say on the subject, queued up all the other movies in NetFlix and ripped those scenes over the course of a few months." He then, "wrote down all the lines and started moving them around like an essay."
The result is a brilliant supercut featuring "large passages where kids talked about flunking math or adults referred to their own trouble with math" from dozens of math-dissing Hollywood television shows and films. Not every Hollywood film hates on math, but many of the ones that don't—for example, Academy Award-winners like "A Beautiful Mind" and "Good Will Hunting"—rely on the genius mathematician trope, which sends a particularly unhelpful message: if you're not brilliant, math is going to be painful and tough.
Of course, it could be questioned whether Hollywood is simply reflecting societal attitudes about math or fostering them. After all, students don't exactly fall in love with math when their teachers ditch engaging lessons in favor of drill-and-kill prep for standardized tests. It also doesn't help when some teachers and parents still insist on telling students who happen to be struggling with specific math concepts that maybe math isn't their subject. Before long that messaging becomes internalized, and the kid who once dreamed of becoming an engineer, marine biologist, or mathematician chooses to study something else.
So is the solution for J.J. Abrams to make a movie or television show featuring a protaganist who's you're average—again, not a "Numb3ers"-style genius—math student or teacher? While Hollywood can't solve our math-phobic/hating cultural issues on its own, perhaps a bit of cultural propaganda could help.