About a year and a half ago, I wrote a piece about the war on math, basically an effort to entrench the idea that there is no such thing as reality apart from politics. A slogan for various wars on math has been 2 + 2 = 5. That proposition originated in the totalitarian Soviet Union. It found its way into 1984, in which George Orwell (1903–1950) repudiated totalitarianism, and resurfaced in recent years in the current American education elite. One tactic used that is more subtle than outright messing with the number system is the inclusion of political issues in math problems.
Current affairs writer Steven Tucker explains how it works:
If you were an author of school textbooks and wanted to teach a small child that 2+2=4, how would you choose to do so? Perhaps you might draw a picture of two easily-understandable items like apples, next to another two apples, followed by a final illustration of four apples, these simple and innocent images linked by the common mathematical signifiers + and =. Or, alternatively, perhaps you may prefer to throw out those rotten old apples and have kids learn to count by totting up images of highly politicised things with rather more Social Justice content to them instead, like raised BLM fist-logos, rainbow-coloured condoms, or Free Palestine flags? Parents should relax: these specific examples have not yet happened – as far as I know. But maths questions like the following, found in an Irish school textbook in 2018, have: Craig buys his boyfriend a birthday present that costs €215.65 including VAT [Value Added Tax] @ 13.5%. What was the original bill before VAT was added? – Steven Tucker, “Recent left-wing attempts to subvert maths curricula hold some awkward historical parallels,” MercatorNet, July 17, 2023.
It’s obvious that the Irish problem is intended to convey more than a math challenge. What it was intended to convey may not be something that the community thinks minors should be learning in math class. But how would they know?
Tucker, author of forthcoming book Hitler’s & Stalin’s Misuse of Science (January 2024), goes on to point out that the use of math problems to convey social messaging has a history — in totalitarian states. As he illustrates, the Nazis used math problems to underline the economic benefits to Germany of euthanasia for persons with mental disabilities.
The Soviets used similar tactics to “pursue a consistent class line in questions of training and education; to maintain sharp and clear ideological positions; to increase revolutionary vigilance; to consistently combat apolitical and property-minded vestiges of the past, philistine attitudes, and nihilistic views toward the gains of socialism; and to combat the penetration of bourgeois and revisionist views.” (Great Soviet Encyclopedia)
This sort of covert messaging has become a hot issue in the United States in recent years. For example, in 2022, the state of Florida rejected 54 math textbooks of 132 submitted by publishers because of content features like “measuring racial prejudice” and the “Implicit Association Test” for bias, whose relationship to basic numeracy is strikingly unclear.
The Washington Post worries that publishers are suffering as their work comes under increasing scrutiny:
For many educational publishing companies and book sellers, sales are plunging as districts shy from purchasing content they fear might fall afoul of state laws restricting education on race, sex and gender — or draw complaints amid a historic surge in book challenges. Meanwhile, frazzled firms are spending months negotiating with education departments, politicians and school officials to ensure the books they sell won’t leave them imprisoned, slapped with onerous fines or banned from doing business in a state under the raft of new legislation. – Hannah Natanson, “Red-state education restrictions leave textbook publishers in a bind, Washington Post, July 19, 2023
But surely this picture is leaving something out. It’s hard to see why publishers would be facing so much opposition if their books clearly helped US kids learn basic subjects like math and literacy. Do they? The United States is, surprisingly, well behind other wealthy countries in achievement of basic standards. The publishers may not be the problem but they also do not sound like part of the solution.
James B. Meigs finds that distrust of objectivity is now entrenched in the education system:
Over the decades these ideas filtered into related intellectual movements, including various types of “critical” studies and today’s proliferating identity-based disciplines, gender studies, queer studies, fat studies (yes, that’s a thing), and the like. These movements might not describe themselves as postmodern, but they all share the postmodern distrust of objectivity. To them, facts are relative, and truth is determined by one’s “lived experience”—especially if one is a member of some marginalized group. – James B. Meigs, “How Alan Sokal Won the Battle but Lost the ‘Science Wars,’” Commentary, November 2021.
A preference for “lived experience” over “objectivity” has a certain appeal. We all wish that 2 + 2 didn’t = 4 at times. But our reprieve from reality is, at best, a fantasy.
The worst damage the war on math does is probably that it drowns a whole world of aspiring math culture in dreary social messaging. Would the famous Black American women mathematicians — NASA’s “hidden figures” in the space race — have got very far in their critical work for the agency if correct social messaging had mattered more than correct answers?
Students who think math is dull should learn about Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887–1920), who accomplished so much in his tragically short life, explaining that “An equation means nothing to me unless it expresses a thought of God.” His mentor, G. H. Hardy (1877–1947) quoted a friend’s view that “Every positive integer was one of his personal friends.”
[indent]Math ignited in me a sense of awe and wonder. There was an enchanting order to the universe it could unlock. I grew to appreciate how mathematical truths are real, though they aren’t physical, and how they influence the world, though they exist outside it. These felt like spiritual insights. – Francis Su, “I Loved Studying Math. I Needed God to Show Me Why, ” Christianity Today, June 12, 2023.[end indent]
But the author of Mathematics for Human Flourishing (Yale University Press, 2020) soon found that math could only answer some, not all, of life’s critical questions: “At a moment of crisis, my drive to excel seemed increasingly pointless.”
He goes on to describe his rediscovery of his (previously merely conventional) Christian faith:
I see now why studying beauty matters, even when it has no immediate application. The beauty of reasoning and the order we behold in patterns reflect something divine and so are worth studying for their own sakes, rather than for personal glory.
– Francis Su, “I Loved Studying Math. I Needed God to Show Me Why, ” Christianity Today, June 12, 2023.
That’s all too religious, some will say. At which point, it might be reasonable to ask, why is religion forbidden while politics is allowed to invade everything? At least Ramanujan and Su have more inspiring things to say than the latest grievance lobby does.
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.
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.