Are there not enough black mathematicians? That’s much like asking how long a person’s legs need to be, but then, if the measure is the expectation that there should be the same percentage of people by race, gender, etc., in any particular field of study, occupation, profession, then the answer is yes, there are not enough. Why is a complicated but critical question, since you can’t fix something when you don’t know why its broken.
Seattle doesn’t seem to care. Or to be more precise, they lept to a conclusion that math isn’t sufficiently relevant to black kids’ lives as to make them care about math, want to be mathematicians, and begged the question by creating a Menckian solution.
The Seattle school district is planning to infuse all K-12 math classes with ethnic-studies questions that encourage students to explore how math has been “appropriated” by Western culture and used in systems of power and oppression, a controversial move that puts the district at the forefront of a movement to “rehumanize” math.
The district’s proposed framework outlines strands of discussion that teachers should incorporate into their classes. One leads students into exploring math’s roots “in the ancient histories of people and empires of color.” Another asks how math and science have been used to oppress and marginalize people of color, and who holds power in a math classroom.
Math was never a particularly sexy subject, even though it’s useful, from making change to putting
men people on the moon. The movie “Hidden Figures,” about three amazing black women, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan, NASA’s “human computers,” should have made students appreciate that math was cool and valuable. It also should have made people realize how great a contribution these previously unknown black women made, and how they disappeared from the story.
But Seattle’s solution wasn’t to inspire students by showing them “Hidden Figures,” but rather to, well, better the voices supporting this shift explain.
More recently, some scholars, most prominently Rochelle Gutiérrez at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign, have begun advocating for a “rehumanizing” of mathematics, which places dynamics such as race and oppression at the center of conversations about math and culture.
Gutiérrez noted that math organizations that focus on the preparation and oversight of math teachers back key concepts that appear in Seattle’s proposed guidelines. The Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators’ standards for teacher preparation, for instance, say new math teachers should “understand the roles of power, privilege, and oppression in the history of mathematics education.”
Make sense now? No, eh. Some more explanation.
“Math education has been very focused on access and closing the achievement gap, around grit and growth mindset. Those ideas are centered around individuals, and ways of thinking they need to adopt. We haven’t focused enough on identity or systems of power,” Gutiérrez said.
“Students should be able to see themselves in the curriculum, recognize math as a tool for making their lives better, and question what math is, and the purpose of math,” she said.
It’s not really as bad as it superficially appears. Making math relevant to students, such that they appreciate why they need to learn it, how it affects their lives and how it can be used to improve their world, isn’t really a bad idea. How many kids have asked why they need algebra, since “I’ll never use it, so why should I have to learn it?”
But while inspiring students to learn and appreciate math might make for a good first-class lecture (plus a showing of the movie, because it’s a great movie), such rhetoric-rich rationalizations as Gutiérrez’s rarely seem to accept their minor role in the big picture of multiplication. And so the forces of woke math overtake the notions of actual math to create a curriculum like this:
Where does Power and Oppression show up in our math experiences?
● Who holds power in a mathematical classroom?
● Is there a place for power and authority in the math classroom?
● Who gets to say if an answer is right?
● What is the process for verifying the truth?
● Who is Smart? Who is not Smart?
● Can you recognize and name oppressive mathematical practices in your experience?
● Why/how does data-driven processes prevent liberation?
Pedagogy like this has subjected Seattle’s initiative to well-earned ridicule.
Teacher: Who can tell me what 2+2 equals?
Teacher: No Johnny, 2+2 equals the weight of the white man’s boot on the backs of POC.
And consequently, this program has been shredded, both for what it explicitly includes and for the implications.
Seattle’s proposed guidelines caused a furor on social media after Rod Dreher, an editor for The American Conservative, blogged about them on Sept. 30. In a Twitter thread dubbed #WokeMath, critics sneered at the district’s blend of math and oppression, and zeroed in on parts of the framework that ask, “How important is it to be right?” and “Who gets to say if an answer is right?”
Seattle talk-radio host Dori Monson jumped into the fray on his own blog, asking, “Did you realize when you subtracted one number from another that you were disenfranchising people by using Western math?” Liz Wheeler, a host on One America News, tweeted that Seattle “is now teaching kids as young as Kindergarten that math is racist.”
Had this program been more modest in its reach, such that it wasn’t elevated to the core of math instruction but a collateral element to help students appreciate the value of math in their lives and world, while the ability to add and subtract remained the focus, it might still have garnered some ridicule, but would have been easily explained and justified without resorting to the usual incomprehensible social justice gibberish that’s pulled out whenever woke needs ‘splaining.
But once the social justice train started picking up a head of steam, it rode roughshod over its valid purpose of inspiring students to value math and ran over the point of teaching math, which is to teach math. In the end, the irony may be that black students desire a future as mathematicians, but lack the knowledge and skills to do so because they were taught about white math’s oppression but not how to multiply and divide.