When a blogger of American Mathematical Society writes of the urgent need for math to be “antiracist,” it’s time to start worrying. In the post, blogger Tian An describes his experience teaching college-level methodology class to non-math majors, attempting to employ a social justice curriculum. His starting point was the assumption that “mathematics operates as whiteness” because, in the view of critical race theorists, over the course of last several centuries, many prominent practitioners have been “white.”
An did not go into specifics of his class, but when the Washington state superintendent of public instructions developed a curriculum along the same lines last year, it published the details online. Because of the “urgent need for anti-racist education,” the superintendent’s office produced Seattle Public Schools’ Math Ethnic Studies Framework aimed at “resist[ing] and liberat[ing] people and communities of color from oppression.” Even the World Socialist Organization, a Marxist outfit prone to see the world through the lenses of class, found this to be out of bounds: Math, it explained, doesn’t oppress people; capitalism does.
Over the course of history, all sorts of people have excelled in math-related fields. Indians, for instance, invented Arabic numerals. Silicon Valley employs many Asians and Asian Americans. If we look closely, we find that many prominent European mathematicians have been Jewish, which makes them not so white by European standards.
As a matter of fact, so many Jews were excelling in math in Weimar, Germany, the Nazis attempted — and failed, of course — to create their own ethnic math. Not that any of this matters to the field of inquiry in question. The ethnic origin of math practitioners, and historical forces that worked for or against them, is for studying the history of mathematics, not math itself.
Bureaucrats Are Asking the Wrong Questions
I don’t think educational bureaucrats understand that distinction. The office of Seattle’s superintendent, for instance, rather hilariously created an ethnic studies math chart, complete with categories such as, “Can you suggest resolutions to oppressive mathematical practices?” and “history of resistance and liberation.” It explains what “dictates economic oppression,” that test scores are racist, and how to discuss when a person knows or feels he’s finally become a mathematician.
In this story- and experience-driven exercise, feelings are all that count. The program leaves the impression that the people creating it were probably instructed by teachers who learned “new math” in grade schools and, therefore, are clueless about what to do with it.
For instance, the superintendent wants students to develop something he calls “math identity.” I like math very much, yet never did it occur to me to develop something called “math identity.” So, what should it be? Pythagoras? Fermat’s Theorem? A non-binary square root sign? The intersection of Fermat’s theorem and a non-binary square root?
Questions under the rubric “What does it mean to do math?” include:
- How important is it to be right? What is right? Says who?
- What is the difference between being right and being a learner?
Admittedly, I have no idea what is meant by “learner,” and how it’s different from “student,” but being right is crucial in STEM. If the engineer is wrong in making calculations for a bridge, that bridge may collapse.
“Who is smart? Who is not smart?” Seattle educators want to know. I think they are onto something. Some kids are not smart, and others weren’t taught properly. Still more ask, “Why do I need this? I’m never going to use it!” Many teachers and parents are struggling to address this real question, and their answer should have nothing to do with race or sex.
Math Offers True Liberation from Oppression
Instead of instructing teachers on how to talk about difficult, abstract problems, Seattle proposed some race-bating silliness: “Can you recognize and name oppressive mathematical practices in your experience?” There are none. No matter the student’s “lived experience,” it includes no oppressive mathematical practices. Mathematics is the single most liberating field of inquiry known to humanity. It’s logical, and it’s pure.
In the USSR, where the Communist Party ruled the humanities and, to some extent, the natural sciences, math remained the paragon of reason, truth, and sanity. Thinking, honest people majored in the field because its tenets were a shelter from Marxism. A commissar may vanish from encyclopedias, genetics can be banned from universities, but two plus two is four, and there is nothing the general secretary can do about it.
The most direct and precise secular approach to knowing nature ever attempted by the human race is to study the mathematical laws governing the universe. They are beyond ideology, language, and subjectivity. More than any other discipline, mathematics allows people to exercise intellect outside the oppressive practices of a society.
Math Is Inherently Antiracist
Here is how clueless and agenda-driven education bureaucracy is: The superintendent’s office asks, “Why/how does data-driven processes prevent liberation?” Well, of course, data-driven processes do not prevent liberation. A generation ago, the left-liberal mantra was, “Knowledge is power.” No longer.
Regardless, math is not data-driven; it’s deductive. In deduction, top-down conclusions are reached by applying logical rules that hold true under all conditions. Theorems are not proved by gathering data, but by illustrating that they work for any number.
Because of its self-contained deductive nature, math is as antiracist as any field of inquiry can be. It’s hermetically proofed from any ideological contamination. If physical sciences still depend on data-gathering, math does not. Feelings and subjective experiences absolutely cannot figure into mathematical inquiry.
Educational bureaucrats are not going to change math. Because of its self-contained nature, it is beyond their reach. What they might end up doing is destroying the way the subject is taught and alienating students. Math class is not the place for questionable approaches to self-esteem studies. The history of the field should be given only a passing mention. Understanding abstract relationships is what drives enjoyment of the subject. If anything, mathematics has been shown to offer an escape from oppression; it never facilitates it.
Math is not oppressive. Bureaucracy is oppressive. Intersectionality is oppressive. All other forces alienating students from math are oppressive. American children are just as capable of learning as all other children around the world, and it’s been more than 50 years since they’ve been taught math well.