Monday, December 3, 2012

Curse You, Teen Talk Barbie!

Thinking some more about cursing and why, in the red states in particular, it's so shocking to people that women do it. Today I was reprimanded (again) for saying damn. I said it because I was upset about several things: (1) I had to wait for an hour for somebody; (2) some students (again) didn't do their homework, even though they had two weeks to do it;  (3) other students (again) were so tired that they could not pay attention in class; and (4) some students (again) said that they were congenitally incapable of doing math.

I looked up cursing on the internet to find out what it really is. Profanity is a kind of blasphemy, apparently,  representing "secular indifference to religion or religious figures." That explains a lot of its shock effect: just using profanity means you are indifferent to God and the Church.  Even worse, profanity is "part of the ancient tradition of the comic cults, which laughed and scoffed at the deity or deities." That could be upsetting too to some people. But that's not  what I was doing. I was using "damn" as an intensifier, although I don't remember exactly what I said. I probably said something about the importance of doing your damn homework. This is the usual use of curse words in contemporary America: as intensifiers.

There's another meaning to cursing, though, and it's probably an older meaning,  a more literal meaning: using words to cause harm to somebody else, as in a hex or spell. Here is where it gets really ironic. I was using "damn" as an intensifier to indicate my passion about the importance of a good work ethic to academic success. Almost every school day, at least one of my students tells me that she knows she is no good at math, and that neither is her sister or her mother.  Note that in my (limited) sample, it is never the sons who hear and believe this message; it is always the daughters. Sometimes the family myth is that the son is good at math and the daughter is not. I have never heard of a family where the daughters were said to be good at math, but the sons were not.

It's hard to believe that in the 21st century, families are still telling their daughters to believe Teen Talk Barbie, who famously said that "math class is tough!" Yet it apparently still happens. And this, dear reader, is a curse. Girls believe it when their mothers or fathers tell them that they are not good at math. And then--surprise!--they are not good at math. In Asian countries, parents and teachers tell kids that success in math is due to effort, not innate ability. And so those students tend to do better in math than American students, who largely believe that you either got it or you ain't.

Stop cursing your daughters, parents of America. Start blessing them instead. Make them do their homework; tell them that success is largely due to a good work ethic rather than innate ability; and make them go to bed on time.

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