I wrote here about teaching anti-military "values", here about race and the Civil Rights Act among others, here about the Vagina Monologues and addressing that play at school, and here about the First Amendment. Again I ask, whose idea of social justice should be taught? My ideas about equal opportunity, personal responsibility, race relations, the proper role of government, and/or power relationships in society are much more conservative that those of many teachers--but so what? How can I use those ideas, or other teachers use their opposites, to teach logarithms and trig functions?
Enter ethnomathematics. The idea's been around for awhile, but just this week Diane Ravitch addressed it in the Wall Street Journal. Let's discuss the key points in her article.
Now mathematics 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 "non-mainstream" cultures.
Isn't 2+2=4 in every culture? And if it's not, shouldn't we be teaching children what's going to help them succeed in our culture? Give them, as Lisa Delpit called it, cultural capital? Mathematically (not sociologically) speaking, does it matter that the Mayans invented the zero before Europeans? I think not. And the only reason we even learn Roman numerals is so we can read the copyright dates on movies, know what page of the the prologue of a book we're on, and know what Pope number we're on.
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, gender, ethnicity, and community.
This isn't math, it's indoctrination. Ravitch is very clear here; there are those who truly believe that math cannot be taught in a neutral manner.
Ravitch brought up a comparison of some math textbooks to show how close we are to this kind of idiocy.
In a comparison of a 1973 algebra textbook and a 1998 "contemporary mathematics" textbook, Williamson Evers and Paul Clopton found a dramatic change in topics. In the 1973 book, for example, the index for the letter "F" included "factors, factoring, fallacies, finite decimal, finite set, formulas, fractions, and functions." In the 1998 book, the index listed "families (in poverty data), fast food nutrition data, fat in fast food, feasibility study, feeding tours, ferris wheel, fish, fishing, flags, flight, floor plan, flower beds, food, football, Ford Mustang, franchises, and fund-raising carnival."
While the latter book might appear more interesting, if it's not discussing factoring, it's not algebra.
How does the rest of the world teach math?
It seems terribly old-fashioned to point out that the countries that regularly beat our students in international tests of mathematics do not use the subject to steer students into political action. They teach them instead that mathematics is a universal language that is as relevant and meaningful in Tokyo as it is in Paris, Nairobi and Chicago. The students who learn this universal language well will be the builders and shapers of technology in the 21st century. The students in American classes who fall prey to the political designs of their teachers and professors will not.
I've often said that if you look at an algebra class in the best schools in any country on the planet, my guess is they're all going to look alike. They will be teaching integers, not indoctrination; math, not manipulation; solution sets, not social engineering.
Just today I took an online survey about how I conduct my classes. It asked questions like, "Do you use ethnic names and culturally relavent situations in your word problems?" Honestly, how paternalistic must one be to think that a Hispanic kid needs to see "Juan" instead of "John" in a word problem, or that he/she can't calculate the area of a circle unless it's the area of a tortilla! As Ravitch said above, math is a universal language. Word problems exist to help students translate from real-world issue to mathematical equations, solve the mathematical equation, and then see what that mathematical answer means in the real world. The exercise is mathematical, not social. Everyone hates Train A and Train B problems, but they serve their function well. Don't most cultures now have access to trains?
Some would argue, why not make those word problems socially meaningful? To which I answer with the question, whose definition of socially meaningful do you use? Should we discuss the War in Iraq with a pro-military stance, and come up with some content-rich math problems to support my political stance? My guess is that if I did that, the lefties would squeal that I should stick to math! And so I shall.
Yet we have this so-called ethnomathematics. That survey I took today asked if I teach that the Chinese discovered the Pythagorean Theorem long before Pythagoras and the boys did. Why should I? What is the point? (Granted, I bring up all sorts of facts about the Pythagorean Theroem. But I do it as an exercise in its universality, not to make Asian students feel good.) Just today on her site, Joanne had a story about a soon-to-be-required class in African and African-American history for all students in Philadelphia. One of the points that came up in the comments was, if it's history that's taught, more power to them. If it's nothing more than an attempt at making black students feel good about themselves, it'll be a useless class. One person questions "the idea that 21st century people should feel proud of what people who looked sort of like them did centuries ago, maybe." One commenter wrote:
My family came from Germany originally.
I take no blame for Hitler
I take no credit Einstein, Handel, Mozart, etc.
That they and my great grandparents were born in the same part of the world does not automatically bring me disgrace in the case of one or pride in the case of the others. Their work to the detriment or betterment of mankind stands on its own as does my work. While I may not ever be as famous as those I have mentioned, I can take pride in the work I do whether it was as an engineer or now as a teacher.
Young people need to be shown that they need to accomplish something in their own lives and be proud of that, not to be proud by dubious association with a group hundreds of years and thousands of miles removed from them.
Amen. That's not to say that history isn't important--it is. But while I'm proud to be an American, with all that entails, and I'm the beneficiary of the work the Founding Fathers did, I can't say I'm proud of that work. I had nothing to do with it. I'm just darned glad they did it.
When I can bring up something applicable, like the Arabic origin of the word "algebra", I do. But I don't make that the center of the class. Ethnomathematics. What tripe.