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Further Dispatches From the War on Math

Discussions of social policy where math is relevant can be useful. But a student who does not understand how an equation works will fail at both math AND social policy

Earlier this year, I reposted an article that originally ran at Salvo on the war on the teaching of mathematics as a discipline in publicly funded schools in North America. The war continues so here are some updates:

Recently, three mathematicians who immigrated to the United States weighed in:

The United States has been dominant in the mathematical sciences since the mass exodus of European scientists in the 1930s. Because mathematics is the basis of science—as well as virtually all major technological advances, including scientific computing, climate modelling, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and robotics—US leadership in math has supplied our country with an enormous strategic advantage. But for various reasons, three of which we set out below, the United States is now at risk of losing that dominant position.

First, and most obvious, is the deplorable state of our K-12 math education system. Far too few American public-school children are prepared for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This leaves us increasingly dependent on a constant inflow of foreign talent, especially from mainland China, Taiwan, South Korea, and India.

Percy Deift, Svetlana Jitomirskaya, and Sergiu Klainerma, “As US Schools Prioritize Diversity Over Merit, China Is Becoming the World’s STEM Leader” at Quillette (April 19, 2021)

Increasingly, the United States is dependent on foreign talent in math and science. It seems an odd time for a nation to be sponsoring a war on math. But that seems to have happened. Increasing amounts of time are given to discussing, for example, social policy in math classes at the expense of skills:

Engineering prof Alex Chediak commented recently on a contested curriculum in California:

The Framework calls on teachers to teachers insert “environmental and social justice” into the math curriculum. To develop students’ “sociopolitical consciousness.” To implement “trauma-informed pedagogy.” To assigning students tasks that will solve “problems that result in social inequalities.”

What about foundational math skills? The Framework rejects the goal of preparing students to take Algebra I in 8th grade, a goal that was explicit in the 1999 and 2006 Framework. This now-discarded goal has long been an international standard, and for good reason: mathematicians consider algebra to be foundational for all higher-level math. It’s also the best way to prepare students to complete at least a semester of calculus before graduating high school.

Alex Chediak, “Elevate Math Education. Leave Out the Social Policy” at Stream (September 5, 2021)

Algebra, of course, is how we learn to think abstractly about numbers. And abstraction is key to learning the principles of any topic, including mathematics. Leaving it out means that the student is stuck forever with “arithmetic,” not mathematics.

Discussion of social policy issues to which math is relevant can be useful. But its usefulness depends precisely on making the math the priority. If the student does not understand how an equation works, she will end up failing at both math and social policy.

List of Prime Numbers below 100, Vintage type writer from 1920s

Much of the new social justice math is poorly focused and unhistorical street drama: “UMich prof says math and science classes are racist” and Modern Mathematics Confronts Its White, Patriarchal Past” Or “The Oregon Department of Education encourages teachers to teach “ethnomathematics” (learning how different cultures use math) because “white supremacy manifests itself in a focus on finding the right answer and demanding students to show their work.””

The history of mathematics is a varied one. Indian philosophers probably developed the concept of zero, for example. Arab thinkers developed it further. Later, Italians formalized its use in double-entry bookkeeping: That is, if the two sides of an equation do not add up to zero, you have made a bookkeeping mistake. In recent centuries, Europeans dominated in math but that was principally because they were more interested in the topic. That is changing now, of course.

Uproars around racism efface a true history of mathematics in favor of political posturing. And students are not emerging as the winners.

You may also wish to read:

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.

and

Ada Lovelace (1815–1852): The programmer who spooked Alan Turing


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Further Dispatches From the War on Math