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If you scan alarmist websites as I do, you may have run across the alarming news that the Seattle School Board is considering new guidelines for what might be called “social justice math.” Some culture watchers have taken this to mean that 2 plus 2 is no longer 4, but that’s not exactly the case. Math functions will remain the same, and there will still be such a thing as a right answer.
The reason for the proposed changes, as reported by Education Week, is “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.”
Math felt like a tool of oppression to me in junior high, but that’s beside the point. More important than the doing of math will be who figured it out first and who stole that knowledge and who has been using 2 plus 2 to calculate the profit of slavery and the cost/benefit ratio of armies and how many white oppressors will be needed to colonize all of Africa.
Seattle may be the first major school district to infuse diversity studies into math, but the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics applauds the move. “What [Seattle is] doing,” says Robert Q. Berry, NCTM president, “follows the line of work we hope we can move forward as we think about the history of math and who contributes to that, and also about deepening students’ connection with identity and agency.”
Rehumanizing is another key word, as if math has somehow been stripped of its natural warmth and sympathy.
A task-force report from the council (Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics) lays out appropriate goals for quantitative learning, but also attempts to make math a wrap-around subject for psychological reflection. Students should be encouraged to develop a positive “mathematical identity” and “mathematical agency.” Agency is a good thing if it means giving a high-school senior the confidence to start a lawn-care business or build a robot. But if it means learning just enough about appropriation to browbeat the oppressors, it’s pretty much limited to the faculty lounge.
Rehumanizing is another key word, as if math has somehow been stripped of its natural warmth and sympathy. Rehumanizing insists that teachers “understand the roles of power, privilege, and oppression in the history of mathematics education.” One elementary school in Seattle is already experimenting with the proposed guidelines, but the supervisor’s office won’t say which one because of the “hate and vitriol” social media is certain to unleash.
But the vitriol is not limited to one side. A “top official at one math organization,” whom Education Week agreed not to identify, acknowledged the value of all students learning about cultural contributions to mathematical knowledge. “But you don’t need to talk about liberation and oppression and how Western mathematics has somehow taken over. It just turns people off and makes the goal of being inclusive that much tougher.” That view doesn’t seem arguable, but the fact that this person couldn’t speak openly indicates that oppression is now coming from other quarters.
We were warned: Francis Schaeffer, among others, saw that the “fact/value” split (separating objective information from an overarching worldview) would leave us with no reliable means of distinguishing one from the other. And since there is no such thing as “neutral” or “values-free” education, the fact part of the equation is going to migrate up to the value, and vice versa.
That’s what seems to be happening in education. For 50 years or more, we tried to keep supposedly subjective principles in the upper, theoretical level, while objective facts occupied the classroom below. But the new indisputable “fact” of history is entirely the story of power and oppression and how all Western religions, philosophies, and rational structures are merely power grabs. This is actually a value judgment, but it has become the bedrock of practically all educational theory. What began in university education schools is spreading to elementary arithmetic, and how much math—or anything else—are the kids really going to learn if they start with the premise that it was all a big cheat?