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Dear Mitch

A while back I read the article you recommended about there being no such thing as a math gene, and how that whole thing is mostly a myth. It was interesting. Still, whatever makes someone good in math, I don't have it. My husband does, but I don't. So, now we have a daughter and she has always hated math. She's done as well as she could, and a lot of the time she does fine, but not like her other marks. So now she's in high school and doesn't want to take a certain calculus course that I read the colleges look at and are impressed by. My daughter shays it won't work that way for her because she knows for sure that she's going to do awful in it. If she's lucky, she says, she might pass it but it will bring down her average and then it will backfire for her college admission.

I read where you said anyone can learn calculus, but is that really true? What should we try to get our daughter to do about the class?

Mother of Bright Daughter,

Southgate, MI


Dear Mother of Bright Daughter,

There is a lot packed into your question, probably more than most moms would realize!

What I mean is you've touched on several interesting issues relating to math, the learning of math, the range of people's capabilities and what 'colleges' seem to 'want to see'.

I'm going to start that last part, about what colleges 'want to see'.

As you may know, if you visit this sight and/or read a bunch of the q&a's when you do check us out, you may have picked up that I have developed a range of friends and acquaintances with people who happen to be active members of college admission committees. And they all have one thing in common: They are human beings.

As individuals, they have as wide a range of taste as any group of humans, and they are bright people who are serious about what they do. None of them take the responsibility lightly. In fact, many of them seem to take the almost impossible task of saying yes or no to a person who sometimes desperately desires admission to their school that they agonize over some of the 'close calls' and go out of their way to devote an astounding amount of their own energy and time – sometimes all night – to make their determinations as informed as a person can.

With that said, different schools specialize in different types of programs, and if your daughter were interested in going to a school for mathematicians (which does not sound like the case to me) then, sure, the more details she can show on her record as being a person serious about math and interested enough to do well on upper level courses, would certainly be a 'plus'; and in a couple of schools (they are rarities) they would require the student to have taken the most challenging math classes given at her high school, and expect to see a high grade there. Otherwise, the student would have the challenge of writing a persuasive explanation of the experience. (Which is possible).

I get the sense she is old enough to have insight on this one. She also expresses the same end result as you: the goal of ending up with the right stuff to please people on admissions committees.

(I'll ignore the slender chance that she's anxious and would benefit from a push, or that she wants to be pushed into it, because there is too much as stake.)

One compromise that comes to mind, however, is this: many high schools let juniors and seniors take one or two courses passs/fail. That way she can be introduced to the material with out having to worry about it affecting her overall GPA. (Most pass fail courses in high school pass the students unless the student shows a marked lack of effort or positive attitude). I would bet that your daughter won't have a problem there.

Back to an earlier point:

The idea that 'anyone can learn calculus'. Well, yes, I do believe that but – obviously -- that statement is about as accurate or inaccurate as any single statement that makes a broad proclamation. There are always assumptions in a statement as broad as that – some explicit, some implicit, but all worthy of clarification in an appropriate forum; this website is an appropriate forum.

First, a person has to be capable of learning. There are people who are genetically limited and sometimes the reason is known and sometimes it is not. But either way there is a very small percentage of the population born whose genetics'/early experiences or injury makes learning a challenge that can often seem insurmountable.

Secondly, calculus, like any other subject I know, is learnable on different levels. I would not proclaim that anyone capable of learning can master calculus in a way that shows a natural, easy, and deep grasp of the important underlying principles coupled with an ability to carry out the procedures to arrive at the correct answer with great consistency.

(Just as believing anyone can 'learn' to play tennis, does not mean that everyone will be a great player.)

But more importantly, there is an implicit assumption that the person learning wants to learn. It is possible, I suppose, to force someone to learn whatever you'd like them to, but people who are not interested in learning something are unlikely to learn much of that subject – despite all the arguments to the contrary. And why bother? Wouldn't it make more sense to find a class that your daughter has a natural interest in and is motivated to learn? We are all different, and the world beyond high school is comprised of all kinds of roles and jobs. If there is a subject that is more likely to get your daughter to put her heart into it, it would seem to me that she's now of the age when her heart might be worth taking into consideration.

Hope this helps,