A twit of such banal obviousness caught a little attention for an unexpected reason:
I will die on this hill.
No, this wasn’t written by a third grader, but by an old lawyer. And the reason anyone noticed is because this silly childish equation has become either the center of controversy or, as Rendall argued, a strawman. The answer, as is often the case, depends on what you see and what you know. As with Rendall, the issue exploded after a math nerd gave an abstract math definition, followed by James Lindsay’s ridiculing it as post-modern math.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t just a strawman, although there were some fun math nerd points to be made about it that were of remarkably little use to anyone other than math nerds. There was an entirely distinct thread of argument that was exactly as Lindsay, et al., proffered, bearing no connection to cutesy math abstractions, but instead saying exactly the worst possible thing.
Or to put it as simplistically as possible:
So no, dear math nerds with your sometimes silly and sometimes witty explanations for why 2+2 may not necessarily equal four, this isn’t about you, your pedantry or a strawman, but, a cultural problem, because aren’t there other ways of “knowing”? Why are calculations correct but intuitive reasoning less correct. Or as the Seattle Public School’s new math curriculum asked, who gets to say if an answer is right?
The obvious answer would be the math teacher, in the classroom setting, but the broader answer is that either math is accepted as an objective reality or not. Once one masters the basics, and demonstrates a sufficient mastery to move on to the abstractions, the joke of 2+2=5 sometimes is interesting, fun and great for making friends at parties. But as a means of teaching third graders how to do basic math so they can function in society, it’s unhelpful.
More to the point, this effort to recharacterize a basic equation as a representation of imperialism/colonization, or whatever woke words one prefers, bears no connection to the engineer who needs a value to the millionth place or rounded numbers, or even using a non-decimal system of math as used by the ancient Nacirema. Rather, this is an effort to manufacture a wedge to make wrong answers right, deny children the ability to learn and succeed and create a society were everyone gets to invent the math that works for them, where their math is a reflection of their lived experience.
This doesn’t work. This can’t work. Society can’t function if we each get to assign our own values to numbers so that whatever outcome we reach is right for us. A bridge won’t stand unless the calculations align. Planes won’t fly. And a black child’s future won’t be successful if they are told by their third-grade teacher that 2+2=5 is just as right as four.
For years, we’ve watched as words have been devalued to the point of meaninglessness by redefinition, or more precisely, untethering words from cognizable definitions such that when a person says a conclusory word, we have no clue what it means. When someone says they are “challenged,” are they blind, lame or autistic? Do you meet them at the door with a wheelchair or a seeing-eye dog? Some argue that it’s less stigmatizing to use vague words, and perhaps that’s true if there’s some stigma attached to being blind. But it still doesn’t tell you whether they need a wheelchair. Is the trade-off of potential stigma to the ability to move a good one?
Definitional entropy has been going on for years now, despite my best efforts to stop the slide down the slippery slope. But basic math is objective, one of the handful of things society possesses that can communicate a hard concept across all cultural lines. And to make this even more controversial, one that the poor, oppressed, marginalized and downtrodden of all races, genders and cultures, can manage to learn. Take this away from them, and from society, and replace it with woke gibberish and we’ve made a society where nobody’s right when everybody’s wrong. Don’t do this to children, to people.
This is a hill I will die on, not because I don’t get the math nerd arguments, but because any child in third grade who can’t correctly answer this equation is going to struggle to succeed. If you want them to achieve, don’t make up excuses for them to be right even when they’re wrong.
Teach them to be right. Do it for the children. Do it for the sake of people who drive across bridges, fly in planes and make change at the Dollar Store. And for the handful who later become Ph.D. mathematicians, let them enjoy the math nerd jokes all they want, long after they’ve mastered the basics.