June 26, 2005


Even math education is being politicized. (DIANE RAVITCH, June 26, 2005, Opinion Journal)

[M]athematics is being nudged into a specifically political direction by educators who call themselves "critical theorists." They advocate using mathematics as a tool to advance social justice. Social justice math relies on political and cultural relevance to guide math instruction. One of its precepts is "ethnomathematics," that is, the belief that different cultures have evolved different ways of using mathematics, and that students will learn best if taught in the ways that relate to their ancestral culture. From this perspective, traditional mathematics--the mathematics taught in universities around the world--is the property of Western civilization and is inexorably linked with the values of the oppressors and conquerors. The culturally attuned teacher will learn about the counting system of the ancient Mayans, ancient Africans, Papua New Guineans and other "nonmainstream" cultures.

Partisans of social-justice mathematics advocate an explicitly political agenda in the classroom. A new textbook, "Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers," shows how problem solving, ethnomathematics and political action can be merged. Among its topics are: "Sweatshop Accounting," with units on poverty, globalization and the unequal distribution of wealth. Another topic, drawn directly from ethnomathematics, is "Chicanos Have Math in Their Blood." Others include "The Transnational Capital Auction," "Multicultural Math," and "Home Buying While Brown or Black." Units of study include racial profiling, the war in Iraq, corporate control of the media and environmental racism. The theory behind the book is that "teaching math in a neutral manner is not possible." Teachers are supposed to vary the teaching of mathematics in relation to their students' race, sex, ethnicity and community.

This fusion of political correctness and relevance may be the next big thing to rock mathematics education, appealing as it does to political activists and to ethnic chauvinists.

Having grown up in the 'hood, the Brothers have some considerable experience of ethnomathematics--perhaps we can be of help.

Here's a sample problem:

Orrin and Stephen each have 15 cents for milk money. Tyrone has none. How much money will Tyrone spend at the candy store after school?

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 26, 2005 10:02 AM

I take it even the jokes that just leap out from the headline itself aren't permitted then.

Posted by: bart at June 26, 2005 11:14 AM


Posted by: oj at June 26, 2005 11:20 AM


Posted by: oj at June 26, 2005 11:20 AM

"Mo' Fo'?" Dr. Carlton Coon (His real name, really) a renouned 20th Century anthropologist, wrote that this expression is a survival of a West African epithet which he transliterated as "M'fugwa."

More seriously, pretending that mathematics has race is a survival of 19th and early 20th Century European racist thinking. D'Gobineau and Chamberlain raved about nonsense like this. Encouraging children to reject their nation's culture--to become not of the folk--is a prescription for continued curltural separation and economic disadvantage. It is in interest only of the plantation overseers who make a career out of ministering to minorities.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 26, 2005 11:47 AM

Teachers are supposed to vary the teaching of mathematics in relation to their students' race, sex, ethnicity and community.

Social Justice means never having to say "I". Suppose someone doesn't want to relate to their race, sex, ethnicity or community? Suppose someone would rather be successful? Social Justce says you can't do that, you are bound to the collective fate of whatever group the Social Justice activist believes best represents the most oppressed and disadvantaged category you can lay claim to.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at June 26, 2005 12:15 PM

30 cents? right?

Posted by: at June 26, 2005 12:19 PM

Ravitch should examine some arithmetic books used in American schools in the 19th century.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 26, 2005 1:05 PM

45 cents--he got The Sister Judd's too.

Posted by: oj at June 26, 2005 1:16 PM

Such as this, you mean:

"Early 19th century arithmetic books taught addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division often using problems drawn from every day life. Many times these arithmetic books taught morality as well. On page 20 of this book ... the author teaches a lesson in Temperance (or abstinence from drinking alcohol) in a subtraction problem. Many schoolbook authors were ministers or other people involved in the social reform movements of the day such as Temperance and Abolition."

Click through to page 20 and you'll see the following example: "there were seven farmers, 3 of whom drank rum and whisky, and became miserable; the rest drank water, and were healthy and happy."
Now there's a radicalizing sentiment! I assume your larger point is that education is political and always will be, and I think we all agree to that. So I guess the only open question is: whose politics ought to be indoctrinated? And I'll go ahead and answer: mine, not yours.

Posted by: joe shropshire at June 26, 2005 1:56 PM

The real question OJ is who are you to raise issues about the teaching of Mathnatics, when it is apparent to all that it never touched you.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 26, 2005 2:07 PM

> Chicanos Have Math in Their Blood

When a socialist starts talking like this, it's only a matter of time before the chicanos are rounded up and sent to math camps.

Posted by: Guy T. at June 26, 2005 2:14 PM

That's just quoting Jaime Escalante. Actually it's probably quoting Edward James Olmos playing Jaime Escalante.

Posted by: joe shropshire at June 26, 2005 2:22 PM

All education is political. That is why we home school our grand children and support other young families who home school their children.

Posted by: tgn at June 26, 2005 5:11 PM

tgn. Home schooling your grandchildren! Fantastic. My hat's off to you. Much success in this obvious labor of love.

Posted by: erp at June 26, 2005 6:05 PM

> That's just quoting Jaime Escalante.

Thanks for the pointer!

Posted by: Guy T. at June 26, 2005 8:47 PM

One of the actions of the Third Reich was to eliminate Jewish mathematicians from the universities.

"In the spring of 1933, the University of Gottingen, the seat of brilliant achievement in years past, became the focal point of Hitler's anti-Jewish policies. Student demonstrations proclaiming the coming of the "new order" became an every-day occurrence. Respected scholars were brutally expelled. Some of the world's foremost physicists such as Max Born, James Franck, Eugene Wigner, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, and John von Neumann were forced to flee.

Attempts were made by "patriotic German" physicists to prevent the expulsion of so many "brilliant" men, but all to no avail. Even well-known Germans such as Heisenberg and Nobel winners von Laue and Planck were unsuccessful in their attempts at mediation.

The clearest account of the state of the once-great Gottingen University was given by the mathematician David Hilbert, by that time well advanced in years. About a year after the great purge of Gottingen he was seated at a banquet in the place of honor next to Hitler's new Minister of Education, Rust. Rust was unwary enough to ask: "Is it really true, Professor, that your institute suffered so much from the departure of the Jews and their friends?" Hilbert snapped back, as coolly as ever: "Suffered? No, it didn't suffer, Herr Minister. It just doesn't exist any more!"

These attempts to "culturalize" mathematics will end up having the same effect, which is probably what these idiots want.

Posted by: at June 26, 2005 11:04 PM

Mathematics education need not be political.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 28, 2005 3:04 PM

So long as it doesn't occur in academia.

Posted by: oj at June 28, 2005 5:34 PM

My summer math book is E.T. Bell's 'Mathematics: Queen and Servant of Science'

I commend it to you, not least for its unpolitical nature.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 29, 2005 3:44 PM

Mine is Polynomials: Overlords of Creation

Posted by: oj at June 29, 2005 3:51 PM

Diane Ravitch accuses math teachers of being politically motivated. If I had a political agenda, perhaps I'd be an opinion editorialist like Diane Ravitch rather than a computer programmer during the week and a math instructor at a community college on the weekends. In my math classes, we discuss math, not politics.

The "Rethinking Mathematics" book Ravitch mentions is not published by a mainstream academic press and will never be taught as a mainstream course in public universities. She uses it as a scare tactic to make her readers distrust all math teachers.

As far as "ethnomathematics" goes, I had not heard of it until I read Ravitch's editorial (I have two degrees in math, no education courses), but I found out it was defined by Ubiratan D'Ambrosio in 1985 as "the mathematics practiced among cultural groups such as national-tribal societies, labour groups, children of a certain age bracket, professional classes and so on". The Chronicle of Higher Education has a good pro/con article on it: http://chronicle.com/free/v47/i06/06a01601.htm

Imagine my surprise when I realized I have been teaching ethnomathematics all along. No, I haven't researched the history of different cultures, but I do ask my students to provide some personal background (at their discretion) at the beginning of each semester. I use that information to choose relevant examples when possible. When I have a pilot in a trigonometry class, I present a navigation problem. If an engineering major will go on to calculus, I ask him/her to take special note of certain techniques being covered in algebra which are especially useful in calculus. I may present a function graphically to an artist before delving into the algebraic representation. I even present examples from my programming work. Sometimes relating a new idea to something a person already understands or thinks will be useful in the future makes the idea click.

Posted by: Terri Cavender at July 3, 2005 1:07 PM

Not being taught in Education classes is the point.

Posted by: oj at July 3, 2005 6:42 PM