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Yes, There Really Is a War on Math in Our Schools

Pundits differ as to the causes but here are some facts parents should know

The Oregon Department of Education (ODE) recently encouraged teachers to register for training that encourages “ethnomathematics,” an education trend that argues, “among other things, that White supremacy manifests itself in the focus on finding the right answer”:

“The concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false, and teaching it is even much less so,” the document for the “Equitable Math” toolkit reads. “Upholding the idea that there are always right and wrong answers perpetuate objectivity as well as fear of open conflict.” …

An associated “Dismantling Racism” workbook, linked within the toolkit, similarly identifies “objectivity” — described as “the belief that there is such a thing as being objective or ‘neutral'” — as a characteristic of White supremacy.

Instead of focusing on one right answer, the toolkit encourages teachers to “come up with at least two answers that might solve this problem.”

Sam Dorman, “Oregon promotes teacher program that seeks to undo ‘racism in mathematics’” at Fox News (February 11, 2021)

Opponents of the new trend offer varying accounts of its origin — perhaps it results from changes in overall philosophy of life or perhaps from the practical need to placate teachers’ unions, which may have various objectives apart from enabling numeracy in students. No matter, not only are x and y under attack but so is 2 + 2 = 4. Republished here is a piece I wrote for Salvo recently,Why can’t Winston count?,” which provides some background: Note: You may also wish to read Further dispatches from the war on math (September 14, 2021)

A dear friend is a math teacher who has a hard time understanding the new intersectional war on math, based on critical theory. Trying to explain is frustrating. Like most opponents, she attempts logical refutations. But logic is the prime target in the war. A bit of recent history might help.

One of the earlier proposals was to abolish algebra at community colleges. By 2017, a growing number of educators wanted to dump it:

Algebra is one of the biggest hurdles to getting a high school or college degree — particularly for students of color and first-generation undergrads. It is also the single most failed course in community colleges across the country. So if you’re not a STEM major (science, technology, engineering, math), why even study algebra?

Kayla Lattimore and Julie Depenbrock, “Say Goodbye To X+Y: Should Community Colleges Abolish Algebra?” at NPR (July 21, 2017)

It has become clear that a much more ambitious project is now in hand: to replace math with social justice math, including, perhaps, a name change. Educator Rochelle Gutierrez, whose specialty is “equity issues in mathematics education,” was to give a keynote presentation, “Mathematx: Towards a way of Being,” at a Mathematics Education and Society Conference in India in early 2019, according to whose abstract, “Drawing upon Indigenous worldviews to reconceptualize what mathematics is and how it is practiced, I argue for a movement against objects, truths, and knowledge towards a way of being in the world that is guided by first principles — mathematx.”*

By 2019, the movement was gaining strength. A preview of the new Seattle math curriculum gives some sense of it. British commentator Douglas Murray (pictured) noted,

Just one of the sub-questions that students will be invited to consider here is “How can we use math to measure the impact of activism?” Because, of course, what matters most in this world is engaging in impactful activism. Elsewhere students will be invited to consider the following question, “Can you suggest resolutions to oppressive mathematical practices?”

Douglas Murray, “Will maths succumb to the woke wave?” at Unherd (October 4, 2019)

My math teacher friend would say, “It’s not clear that Seattle students will be competent enough in math to reflect on its practices.” No, but why assume that competence in math is the goal?

One target has been the equals sign, =, once considered the bedrock of mathematics. As one tech writer explains,

It seems to make an entirely fundamental and uncontroversial statement: These things are exactly the same. But there is a growing community of mathematicians who regard the equal sign as math’s original error. They see it as a veneer that hides important complexities in the way quantities are related — complexities that could unlock solutions to an enormous number of problems. They want to reformulate mathematics in the looser language of equivalence.

Kevin Hartnett, “Is the Equal Sign Overrated? Mathematicians Hash It Out” at Wired (October 13, 2019)

For many, perhaps, it’s a welcome deliverance from equations that don’t equate. The new element is that mathematicians are getting behind this trend. That’s doubtless for a variety of reasons, one of which must be, these days, the risk of Cancellation.

They have reason to fear, given that the war has now spread to 2+2=4. In July of this year, teacher and PhD student Brittany Marshall, gained a good deal of attention on Twitter for proclaiming “Nope the idea of 2+2 equaling 4 is cultural and because of western imperialism/colonization, we think of it as the only way of knowing.” Editor and commentator Paula Bolyard responded to one of Marshall’s supporters, “The iPhone you typed those tweets on is based on the binary system — ones and zeroes, not fives and four thousands.” True, but such facts have come to be seen as instruments of oppression. Bringing them up is hostility.

Author and scholar Nancy Pearcey notes that math is by no means exclusively Western:

We all use Arabic numerals, and in my college math class, we learned that the concept of zero as a place holder came from India; that the Babylonians gave us the 360-degree circle and the 60-minute hour; that the Babylonians, Egyptians, and Chinese all had a rough idea of the value of pi.

Nancy Pearcey, “Does Mathematics = Western Imperialism?” at The Federalist (July 26, 2020)

Again, true, but hardly relevant in the Year Zero, when Western thinkers are denounced because they support objectivity and logical thinking, whatever its origin.

Freedom is the freedom to say that 2+2=4

Just to show how deep the rejection goes, one of the drivers in the war on 2 + 2 = 4 was the use of that concept by an opponent to explain the worldview of the new critical theorists. Social scientist and mathematician James Lindsay quoted George Orwell (1903–1950) in 1984, “Freedom is the freedom to say that 2+2=4. If that is granted, all else follows.” He then found that many academics, including some mathematicians, are quite comfortable with the idea that 2+2 might = 5. He later wrote,

I have to confess responsibility for this bizarre moment, which in some sense might be one of the greater achievements of my life thus far. There’s an excellent case to be made that I have led a significant number of professionals who definitely should know otherwise — as effectively every six-year-old in a community with a school does — to dig deeply into tortured defenses of the proposition that two and two do not make four.

James Lindsay, “2+2 Never Equals 5” at New Discourses (August 3, 2020)

There is a history here. Lindsay, with Helen Pluckrose, was one of Peter Boghossian’s embattled Sokal hoaxers. They wrote clearly ridiculous papers that were accepted in social science journals.

He and Pluckrose have now written a book, Cynical Theories (Pitchstone, 2020) addressing the underlying belief system of the war on math: “knowledge is a social construct; science and reason are tools of oppression; all human interactions are sites of oppressive power play; and language is dangerous.” The bizarre tricks that critical theorists use to try to make 2+2 come out to 5 underline a lack of acceptance of the need for rigorous thinking.

Thus, when Brooklyn College Professor of Math Education Laurie Rubel announced in early August that 2+2=4 “reeks of white supremacist patriarchy,” she was speaking for surprising numbers of academics and teachers. Many rightly ask, what about the disadvantaged children who depend on public schools to provide basic literacy and numeracy skills? Well, there are two ways of looking at that. One would be to emphasize the skills; the other would be to undermine their value across society. Critical theory is firmly decided on the latter.

Is there a way of critiquing this mass flight from fact? In the current environment, that’s harder than some might think. For example, in an excerpt from Cynical Theories, Pluckrose and Lindsay note that the new progressive theory explains too much: “It reduces everything to one single variable, one single topic of conversation, one single focus and interpretation: prejudice, as understood under the power dynamics asserted by Theory.”

But why should that be seen as a problem when it is precisely the intention? They then argue, “The entire backbone of the theory is affirming the consequent. True logical statement: if there’s prejudice, then there’s disparity. Logical fallacy: there’s disparity, so there’s prejudice.” But, with the abolition of logic, logical fallacies are no longer a problem. People who don’t accept fallacies, however, are a problem.

Douglas Murray sums up the current situation:

When do you come to realise that a movement has made a clean sweep through the culture? It isn’t the moment when the disciplines that you know succumb to it. It isn’t when the ideas that you are familiar with suffer from the contamination. Rather it is when subjects you took to be serious, solid and immune from such things end up spouting exactly the same degraded mantras as everyone else.

Douglas Murray, “Will maths succumb to the woke wave?” at Unherd (October 4, 2019)

Part of the problem may be that the very nature of mathematics is problematic in a naturalist (nature is all there is) environment. Philosopher Edward Feser puts it this way:

Mathematics appears to describe a realm of entities with quasi–divine attributes. The series of natural numbers is infinite. That one and one equal two and two and two equal four could not have been otherwise. Such mathematical truths never begin being true or cease being true; they hold eternally and immutably. The lines, planes, and figures studied by the geometer have a kind of perfection that the objects of our experience lack.”[12]

Edward Feser, “Keep It Simple” at First Things (April 2020)

That realm — recognized across the world — is increasingly seen as a problem at universities today. One commentator quoted G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), “We shall soon be in a world in which a man may be howled down for saying that two and two make four, in which people will persecute the heresy of calling a triangle a three-sided figure, and hang a man for maddening a mob with the news that grass is green.” (Kurt Mahlberg, MercatorNet, August 19, 2020)

Orwell’s hapless central character in 1984, the one who insisted that 2+2=4, was named Winston. If universities come to be dominated by critical theorists in all disciplines, they will not be slow to deal with the Winstons who show any attachment to fundamental facts, let alone eternal truths.

Note: The information is from Greg Piper, “Professor proposes ‘mathematx’ to fix pro-human bias in math,” The College Fix (August 21, 2018): It is not clear whether Gutierrez gave the presentation because the conference page no longer exists. But she is prolific within the discipline, as a list of her publications demonstrates.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Yes, There Really Is a War on Math in Our Schools