From Michael Foley’s The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes It Hard to be Happy:
Difficulty has become repugnant because it denies entitlement, disenchants potential, limits mobility and flexibility, delays gratification, distracts from distraction and demands responsibility, commitment, attention and thought….
Why submit to mathematical rigour when you can do a degree in Surfing and Beach Management instead?
This is exactly what I was getting at with my cross-country study of math achievement. Countries that have higher self-expressive values tend to have lower mean math achievement. Not only that, but they are less likely to reward students with higher liking-for-math with math achievement, compared to countries with more survivalist values. (Note: my final results were not quite so puny as I had feared. Actually after I refined the model based on some diagnostics they were pretty good but until I solve the psychometric problem of measuring liking-for-math I cannot go further with it. So I suppose that will be what I attack this summer for my research practicum.)
I think this may explain why the curve of math achievement related to GDP flattens at higher levels of income — as countries make the shift from industrial to post-industrial, their values shift from survivalist to self-expressive, and self-expressive values are more likely to encourage a degree in Surfing and Beach Management than in something that requires multivariable calculus and differential equations. (Click for a bigger graph).
As countries industrialize, GDP goes up, and values shift from traditionalist to secular-rational. In this phase, math achievement is encouraged and supported, because an industrially-oriented economy needs, most of all, quantitatively skilled human capital. Mean math achievement will improve and students who like math will put even more effort into it. They will be encouraged by their parents and their peers and by future job opportunities.
But then industrialization provides so much wealth that the country shifts to a post-industrial economy, as has happened in many English-speaking countries. Now cultural values move from survivalist to self-expressive. It’s less important to prepare yourself for a high-paying job than to “do what you love.” The money will follow.
Crudely put, does a culture reward effort or expression? Math success requires effort and it doesn’t really help someone express themselves (just read some of my more statistically-oriented blog posts and you can see that!)
I’m not saying an emphasis on expression is wrong. But it doesn’t contribute to high math achievement. Improving teacher quality isn’t going to change that. Context and culture matters when it comes to academics.