Friday, June 24, 2005


One of the latest insidious trends in education is that of "education for social justice", wherein we "empower" students by teaching them about real-world issues instead of boring "book learning", and instill in them a desire to seek out and work towards social justice. Of course, the problem there is, whose idea of social justice do we teach? Do we teach the "greater good for society" idea, or the "individual is supreme" idea, or the "down with the man", or the "correct every injustice" idea, or the "I'm a victim, hear me roar" idea, or the "my country, right or wrong" idea, or some other one?

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.


L'oiseau rebelle said...

From Higher Superstition by Gross and Levitt, on "Feminist Algebra":

Generations of Jewish kids have done quite well at these problems, despite having to concern themselves with Johnny's Christmas money, rather than Menachem's Chanukah gelt; and in recent decades an even greater cultural dissonance has done little to trip up vast number of young algebraists of Chinese, Korean, or East Indian background.

Just came across your site. I'm from an Asian country and am currently majoring in mathematics in a US university. I'm also looking with horror at such tripe being uttered.

I was taught "traditional mathematics" that "is the property of Western Civilization" and "is inexorably linked with the values of the oppressors and conquerors". I believe I received a good education in math.

Darren said...

L'oiseau Rebelle: welcome! I hope you come back periodically and enjoy your visits when you do. Thank you for your comments.

It's scary what we Americans can come up with, isn't it? I think some people have forgotten what has made this country so affluent, and it's that affluence that gives us the time and energy to create such stupidity.

KimJ said...

Ugh. Stuff like this is why I'm not staying in academia (despite defending my math Ph.D. thesis today, yippee!). I suspect the people pushing "ethnomathematics" probably don't know very much math to begin with. HISTORY of math can perhaps be made multicultural (why do we say a circle has 360 degrees, for example), but the subject itself is not, and trying to squeeze in too much history will squeeze out actual math from the curriculum. This will definitely not help improve American math courses for anyone of any ethnicity or nationality.

Darren said...

Kim J:

I agree that the mathematics of today owes a great debt to the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Indians, Arabs, and Europeans (including, eek, the French). There's not much math we teach today because of what the Chinese, or Papua New Guineans, or Maya learned x number of years or centuries ago.

In a *math* class we bring up these ideas to generate interest and to discuss how mathematical thought processes generated the math we have today--not because it makes some kid with a specific skin tint feel good about him/herself.

It doesn't make me feel wonderful about myself to know that Descartes, Euler, or even Newton were white.

L'oiseau rebelle said...

I'm not sure which is scarier: ethno-"mathematics" or teaching arithmetic with calculators.

Just curious, when was it determined that it is not necessary to be able to add, subtract, multiply or divide to learn math?

Darren said...

1989? The year the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) published their "standards", which were nothing of the sort.

Anonymous said...

Stupid question-- how would an ethnomathematician teach when confronted with a child of mixed ethnicity??

Anonymous said...

There's a sick subtext to this: Many of the sensitivity promoters suspect that their poorer charges will never learn math well. So making them feel "good" and developing the right political attitudes beats feeling bad about poor math grades.

As a parent told me at my son's previous school (I'm Oriental): "My son (hers) will never learn math as well as yours. Why is the teacher hurting all the kids with this tough homework?"

Gotta say that no Asian family I know would even dream of uttering such a defeatist statement.

Moved my boy to a strict and (sadly) expensive private middle school. But the curriculum is straightforward and old-fashioned and my son feels well integrated despite being the only yellow-skin in the whole class.

Darren said...

I continue to be amazed at how Asians are included as minorities until it comes to education--they they're grouped as "Whites and Asians" versus "Blacks and Hispanics."

Harry said...

In the "urban" district where I teach, we've been stuck using Everyday Math for the past ten years. I used to think that someday the "powers that be" would see how far we've sunk and try to reverse the trend. Instead, they want to dumb our kids down even more (all for a good cause of course). In an earlier version of ethnomathematics, there was a sub in our building who used story problems featuring crack dealers to teach math.

I've been supplementing both my math and reading curriuculm way more than I'm allowed to. I teach reading phonetically using Riggs - - it's the best method I've found for teacing reading, writing, spelling, and grammar. To overcome the Chicago Math, I can only supplement. We're monitored more closely on math.

Darren said...

As I quoted in my recent post about the Kelo decision:

"The greatest tyrannies are always perpetrated in the name of the noblest causes." -- Thomas Paine

NYgirl said...

Oh Lord. Is this what it's come to? I feel really sorry for our kids. To paraphrase Tom Friedman, there are kids in China & India waiting to take their jobs, & they can't do anything to keep them.

Anonymous said...

The ethnocentrists are the most racist of all. They are the ones who assume that those with darker skin cannot learn math as well as those with lighter skin. So they want to teach things other than math in math class to make the minorities feel better about their failing grades.

The failing grades, by the way, are probably a result of the fact that we don't teach the minority children to speak and understand the official language of English before we place them into a math class that is taught in English.

Poor children.

Anonymous said...

How assinine, Ethnomathmatics is not about improving race relations and motivating minority students. This is a subject better left to antropologists than schoolteachers. Ethnomathmatics mearly involves studing how different cultures arived at thier counting systems and means of measuring within the context of their society. Soft minded teachers get hung up on the "ethno" aspect to prothelisize about race. Shut up already!

Darren said...

Most recent anonymous: not only are you mistaken, but even if you *were* right, which you're not, who the hell cares how other cultures arrived at their counting systems? "Measuring within the context of their society"? Does that mean anything here in the real world?

How does this so-called Ethnomathematics help children do math today?

It doesn't.

So *you* shut up already, please.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I am a veteran teacher with over 17 years of classroom experience. My students have benefited immensely through the study of mathematics of other cultures. I find that it helps to make mathematic principles such as our own base 10 number system and place value more intrinsic, since forms of these concepts are present in many cultures. To explore numeration and place value we tie counting knots like the Inca and Native American cultures, we trace graphs like the Bushoong of East Africa, and we study the logic of kin relationships of the Australian Warlpiri. We explore statistics and probability by playing the Mu Torere of the New Zealand Maori, the kids love this game of chance immensely, and ingenious space-time relationship representations of the Arctic Inuit people. Mathematics in the West would not have evolved to the state that it is today had Europeans of the medieval period been close-minded to the zero of the Babylonians, the numeration of the Hindus and the Al-Gebra of the Arab mathematicians. Perhaps we would still be counting with letters! Open your mind to what the world has to offer and your students will benefit, mine have and they have the scores to prove it!

Anonymous said...

Conservative thinking has always been an impedimet to progress.

Darren said...

As for the last two comments: liberals love to think of themselves as open-minded. Of course, anyone who disagrees with them cannot, by definition, be open-minded.

Doctors, heal thyselves.

Anonymous said...

Darren, Im sorry, I made the whole thing up. Im not a veteran teacher with 17 years experience! I was just being silly, I got it out of a book. I dont know what the hell I'm talking about, but you have to admit-it sounded pretty good!

Anonymous said...

Crimson Tide is a DAMM good movie!

Darren said...

I concur completely with the last two comments, although I can't figure out what Crimson Tide has to do with this thread.

Ethnomath-loving anonymous: if ethnomathematics were only what you said it was, I would see it as causing no harm--in a History of Math class. However, I recall learning about it in my credentialing classes those several years ago, and it was exactly what Ravitch described in the quote I snipped in this post.

I truly hope we're talking about two different things with the same name.

Darren said...

By the by, this is a very old post--and you only recently started commenting on it. May I ask how you stumbled onto my little corner of the internet?

Anonymous said...

I am an education student working toward an elementary certification. I am going to start student teaching in the fall. I have to write a paper for my last class and the topic is wide open. I have always had an interest in social studies, (particularly in indiginous societies) and math. I thought that ethnomatematics would be a good topic. I did a google search and stumbled upon the word "ethnomatematics" and I ended up on your site. I have to admit however, I am completly without any prior knowledge about what ethnomathimatics actually is! The book I was refering to above is "Ethnomathematics - A Multicultural View of Mathematical Ideas" by Marcia Ascher. As far as I could decern, the topic is more anthropological than pedagogical in nature. I have no idea, but I do feel there must be something valid about exploring the math of other cultures, but you have far more practical teaching experience than I do. I apologize for putting on airs, I know that eventually I will probably come to the same conlusion regarding the subject as you.

Anonymous said...

Also, regarding the crap I concocted about the 17 year veteran teacher- That paragraph itself is not from the above mentioned book. I construed that part, however the information regarding the Inca counting knots and the Maori game, etc. is explained in the book. I will do you and your visitors a favor and terminate my noodling around in your site!