The Numbers Don’t Crunch: EthnoMath

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?

Johnny: Four!

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.

37 thoughts on “The Numbers Don’t Crunch: EthnoMath

    1. SHG Post author

      I remember a lot of kids complaining about the irrelevancy of math in high school. Who wouldn’t benefit from some calculus inspirational talks?

      1. delurking

        Suppose you want to walk to the end of a path. First you have to get halfway there. Then, you have to cover half the remaining distance. Then you have to cover half the remaining distance again. You have to cover half the remaining distance an infinite number of times, which will take an infinite amount of time, so you can never get there. Just give up.

        1. Casual Lurker

          With a few spare moments, as I catch up on some overlooked backlog…

          “You have to cover half the remaining distance an infinite number of times, which will take an infinite amount of time, so you can never get there. Just give up.”

          The concept is properly known as Zeno’s Finite-Size Paradox.

          There’s a somewhat off-color story, believed to have originated at Bell Labs, shortly after its move in 1967 to its new home in Murray Hill, NJ. (later to Holmdel), from what was the Western Electric Laboratories on West Street in lower Manhattan.

          The story was designed to highlight the mindset differences between physicists and engineers. Their professional societies have some fundamental definitions of their roles:

          • A physicist’s job is to do research and develop theory.
          • An engineer’s job is to reduce theory to practice.

          In this story, Frank (an engineer) and Joe (a physicist) are sitting in their new lab. Some 60 feet away is a very attractive lab assistant who is resting nude on one of the test benches. As Frank and Joe argue about the possible outcome of an experiment designed to test Zeno’s hypothesis, Frank takes a tape measure and starts to mark off the distance to the assistants bench. Joe, without ever looking up from his slide-rule* is calling out the successive half-distance points. As he is down to distances of less than an inch, he says “you’ll never get there Frank”. Frank (and the assistant — who are both already doing some “horizontal engineering”) manages to grunt back “close enough for practical purposes!”

          In case it’s not obvious, the point of the story is that engineers tend to be pragmatists and can often find a way to make what initially appears to be impossible, possible. Regardless of the field of endeavor, the point is further brought home when theoreticians in ivory towers issue statements that those on the ground empirically know to be wrong.

          *In present-day tellings, “slide-rule” is usually changed to “calculator”.

          Note to SHG: At one time this story was oft repeated at MIT’s school of engineering. If he hasn’t already heard it, you may care to let SJ Jr. know of it.

  1. Dan

    This is simply a natural extension of Critical Theory–literally everything is a result of, and/or feeds into, power structures and oppression.

    1. SHG Post author

      The irony is that the goal here, to inspire minority students to learn math, is a good one. If only they focused on the problem rather than forced it to fit into their beloved critical theory.

      1. Dan

        That assumes that the stated goal is the true goal, and I don’t believe that’s a safe assumption under the circumstances.

  2. Elpey P.

    Question from the guidelines; “Why/how does data-driven processes prevent liberation?”

    Poe’s Law strikes again. Here we have activist educators who think that not only math is oppressive but also data as well. And grammar, apparently. An argument for religion over science couldn’t put it any more succinctly.

  3. DaveL

    Because algebra and trigonometry weren’t endearing enough to black students before they were called out as racist tools of oppression.

  4. Hunting Guy

    Robert Heinlein.

    “Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best, he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear his shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house.”

  5. Fubar

    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.

    Two words long forgotten, or never learned, on the social justice train: Jaime Escalante.

  6. B. McLeod

    This makes perfect sense. Uncontrolled math could be used by heretics to quantify outcomes of wokey programs, and potentially lead to conclusions contrary to the ideology. Math must go.

  7. Curtis

    If conservatives say that blacks cannot learn math, they are rightly be condemned as racist. It’s just as racist when when progressives or blacks says the same. We need to figure out to help black kids learn math not change math for them. This idiocy makes it easier for the racists to spread their hate.

  8. losingtrader

    This reminds me of the game show on SNL titled “The Question is Moot,” which was hosted by Jesse Jackson.
    The title of the show was the correct answer to every question.

  9. Timothy Knox

    As a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (back in the ’80s, when wokeness was not a prerequisite), let me apologise for that. I carried a mathematics minor, and took Geometry for Math Teachers as part of my degree. Our professor was only interested in teaching us the bases for Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries, and never once talked about what made the right answer the right answer, or who held the power in the classroom. He held it. and that was that.

    Also, as Seattle-area resident, well, let’s just say that that is not surprising, but again, sorry we let them off the lead.

  10. Bruce Woodrow

    When I was a math major (a long time ago) a favourite joke involved a mathie and an engineer discussing how long it would take to reach your destination if every second you crossed half the distance;

    Mathie: in theory, you will never get there.

    Engineer: in practice, you will.


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