When we first started talking about the war on math, many readers may have thought we were joking. No. The war on 2 + 2 = 4 is getting some pushback but it continues. The basic idea is that the rules of math are rooted in white supremacy.
Last December, the question was mooted at USA Today, “Is math racist?” The context was proposed changes to math education:
After Ebri switched to emphasizing real-world problems and collaboration, her students, most of whom are Black, improved their scores on Florida’s math exam in 2020-21 – even with 1 in 3 learning from home.
But other, bolder recommendations to make math more inclusive are blowing up the world of mathematics education. Schools are collapsing math “tracks” to put kids of all abilities in the same classes and adding data science courses that carry the same prestige as calculus, long seen as a gateway to a career in STEM fields – and elite colleges.Erin Richards, Emily Bloch, Gary Stern and Christine Fernando, “Is math education racist? Debate rages over changes to how US teaches the subject” at USA Today (December 7, 2021)
Curiously, the title of the article had changed overnight from “Is math racist?” to “Is math education racist?”:
USA Today appeared to question whether math was racist in a Twitter-provoking headline from Tuesday.
Portland State University professor Peter Boghossian wrote, “No, math is not racist. Major venues like @USATODAY even asking this question is a sign of cultural sickness. Racial disparities can be addressed (in part) by using the best evidence-based pedagogical practices that enable student learning. Please stop suggesting math is racist.”Lindsay Kornick, “USA Today mocked for asking ‘is math racist’ in headline” at Fox News (December 8, 2021)
Readers were left with the uncomfortable feeling that the true intent was to characterize math itself as racist. They had reason to think so. Concern was raised by articles like “Modern Mathematics Confronts Its White, Patriarchal Past in Scientific American (August 12, 2021) and statements like “white supremacy manifests itself in a focus on finding the right answer and demanding students to show their work” from educators (Newsweek, May 6, 2021)
Did the third R in the 3Rs still mean “’rithmetic”? Or “rants” about racism? Or what?
California, gung-ho in recent years, has backtracked somewhat, though its revised new curriculum still contains obviously politicized elements. One is the insistence on student-directed learning (as opposed to teacher-directed learning), despite the fact that student-directed learning has not proven its worth. The stress on “sociopolitical consciousness” and a “justice-oriented perspective” again raises the question of how much math class time is spent on these matters as an alternative to developing math skills.
It may not matter in the long run, of course, if the education standards change so that anyone can pass, as one New York teacher explains, recounting the experience of a student:
River didn’t learn algebra last year.
I mean it: zero algebra was learned. He wasn’t even present in my classroom for most of three marking periods. At the end of the year, he asked me how he was supposed to pass the state test.
“No problem,” I said. “Just pick all Cs.”
“Try it. I bet it will work.”
It worked.Ed Knight, “Guessing C For Every Answer Is Now Enough To Pass The New York State Algebra Exam” at Medium (August 16, 2022)
The teacher adds, “I wouldn’t believe that anyone who claims to care about kids could let this happen — not until I saw it happen.”
But in fairness, parents and education ratepayers let it happen. And it does solve certain problems for the education system and the teachers’ unions: The squabble over math as racist becomes pointless when math isn’t really being taught or learned anyway.
But the outcome — that public education is not a place to learn basic math skills — may not please most parents or (in the long run) most students. At Expensivity, Bernard Fickser has thought a lot about these matters. He sees a defense of the concept of merit, the value of learning something and performing well, as worth preserving:
It seems that we may be past the point of systemic solutions. National testing, clear metrics of merit, and such seem on the way out…
It seems that the best that can be done is that people, individually, affirm their commitment to merit as a good thing. That people need to be rewarded for the inherent excellence of their work — its meritoriousness. And so, insofar as it is in our power to reward those who exhibit merit (which is to say those that deserve to be rewarded on the basis of their work rather than some extraneous factors), we should do so.Bernard Fickser, “In Defense of Merit: Why a Free Society Needs to Resist the Assault on Merit” at Expensivity (September 16, 2022)
The challenge, as he acknowledges, is to maintain a commitment to getting the right answer in a society that increasingly regards it with suspicion.
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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. Increasingly, the United States depends on foreign talent in math and science. It seems an odd time for a nation to be sponsoring a war on math.
Antiracism in math promotes racism and bad math. Calculus teacher and author Jonathan Bartlett: If you are scratching your head over how math might be racist, you are not alone. Equitable Math seeks to eliminate “white supremacy culture” from math curriculum, but their solutions will only create more problems for students. (Jonathan Bartlett)