Math class: now with more social justice (and less math)

The adage that addresses the issue of judging books by their covers counsels unambiguously against, but I’ve always rejected it on the grounds that it assumes, generally incorrectly, that authors have no editorial control over the presentation of their work. I unabashedly judge books by their covers in the figurative sense; but at the moment I’m being quite literal. Specifically, I am judging Rethinking Mathematics by its cover:

The authors of this tome aim to “provide examples of how to weave social justice issues throughout the mathematics curriculum and how to integrate mathematics into other curricular areas”, and if the cover is one such example, then we can safely conclude that the integral of SOCIAL JUSTICE ISSUES + MATHEMATICS CURRICULUM equals GIBBERISH. It’s an equation! No, it’s an inequality! No, wait…it’s bullshit! Seriously -what are the units of MULTICULTURALISM * POVERTY / INEQUALITY?

I haven’t read the book. My local library doesn’t carry it, and if I were to pay the $16 cover price to purchase it from pair of white guys who write about economic racism, well, I fear that that would make me part of the problem.

Nevertheless, even those of us who haven’t read the book can find plenty to criticize (cf “critical thinking”) in the introduction alone, which decries the “unfortunate scarcity of social justice connections” that are to be found in conventional high school mathematics curricula.

Sadly, some old fuddy-duddies think that math classes should deal with stuff like trigonometry, as opposed to, say, the War on Iraq Boondocks Cartoon. Those naysayers, however, are just party poopers who totally don’t get it, but they can easily be convinced that a a social justice approach is consistent with your (yes, your) state’s mathematics standards:

Occasionally, a teacher needs to defend this kind of curriculum to supervisors, colleagues, or parents. One approach is to survey your state’s math standards (or the national standards) and to find references to “critical thinking” or “problem solving” and use those to explain your curriculum. Also, the NCTM clearly states that “mathematical connections” between curriculum and students’ lives are important.

There’s a valuable lesson to be learned here, actually, and it is this: if the description of your curriculum is impenetrably vague and long-winded, then people can use it to justify anything. For instance, the paid-by-the-word folks behind the Illinois math curriclum talk about a goal, within the math class, for students to “express and interpret information and ideas”, from which one could argue that it follows that we should be teaching interpretive dance in lieu of geometry.

This book pisses me off. It pisses me off a lot. Not because I think that math and life should be disjoint – quite the contrary, as I’ve frequently argued in this space. Hell – during the first ten minutes of the statistics-for-social-scientists course I taught last year, I stated, in so many words, that no one can accurately claim to be a fully-functioning member of a democratic society if they can’t interpret quantitative data.

(Nor am I the first to make this argument; John Allen Paulos, author of the marvellous – and bestselling – book Innumeracy, says as much himself. The fact that the authors of Rethinking Mathematics are so unfamiliar with the literature that exists on the topic of mathematical literacy that they claim that theirs is the only resource of its kind, does not speak well to their expertise on the subject.) I also don’t think that the social-justice-based math curriculum is the dominant force behind students’ appalling inability to work with quantities.

Sure, it’s not helping, but to claim that students think that 2/3+5/7=7/10 because their teachers are ideologues who have rethought mathematics is to diminish the roles played by innumerate elementary school teachers, innumerate curriculum developers, absent fathers, working mothers, fucking graphing calculators, sugary breakfast cereals, sex on TV, and shock rock in bringing about that sorry state of affairs. Hell, a good many of the topics in this book look quite worthwhile:the section on how unemployment figures are reported, for instance, seems like a nice topic for the “how you present data impacts what people think” section that appears in every single statistics chapter in every single high school math text, not just this “first of its kind” resource, but anyway! No, I am not opposed to mathematical literacy, and I wish that folks who are more politically-inclined than I would invoke it more often.

No, what bothers is this: is anyone familiar with a movement among social studies educatorsin secondary schools to use math in their courses, or does the movement toward interdisciplinary studies of social justice only go in the other direction? I am aware of none.

Why are the educators who are motivated by political issues – and who see numeracy as a means to that end – injecting those issues into the math curriculum, rather than injecting math into social studies classes – which seems more natural to me? If I think that potters would improve their craft by learning some elementary Newtonian mechanics, I’d sooner give impromptu physics lessons at the pottery wheel than drag my physics classmates to the studio.

Is the overall effect to the high school curriculum, a net reduction of mathematical content?

The authors of Rethinking Mathematics are unabashedly politically-driven, and from the table of contents it is apparent that the math they present in their book leads students, none too subtly, to such conclusions as the one that capitalism is a fundamentally damaging economic system. Leaving aside for the moment the validity of this conclusion – I personally dispute it – let’s consider just how very involved a topic economics is.

To come to any conclusion about capitalism requires one of two things:

1) a great deal of in-depth studies of economics and related issues, issues that Ph.D. students have written theses about; or

2) some superficial examination of pre-selected data (is this the Global Capitalist Economy Cartoon mentioned in the book’s table of contents?) that leads directly to the desired conclusion.

In the context of a high school math class,

(1) entails a huge use of the mathematics class’s time to teach and learn economics, while

(2) constitutes brainwashing.

Given how ill-prepared the majority of high school students are to either do mathematics or think (let alone “think critically”, and the first person to point out case of that phrase being used by anyone who doesn’t have an ideological axe to grind, gets a cookie), you’ll forgive me if I can’t get on board with either of those two options.

This book, if used more than very sparingly, will give innumerate high school students highly skewed foundations on a wealth of complicated topics, and direct them to predetermined conclusions. Judging from the table of contents, it might prepare students for jobs preparing statistical expositions of positions espoused by lefty think-tanks.

And, hell, that’s more than a lot of high school classes prepare students for, so I can’t even find fault with that; the problem is that while grooming students for that path, the social-justice math class will inevitably omit, because of time constraints, some other topics that might prepare students for further study in other areas.

Will students whose teachers are motivated by social justice concerns learn enough trigonometry to hold their own in a university engineering course, should they wish to pursue that path? Will they learn enough algebra to succeed in the chemistry courses required by every medical school? The authors of this text talk about using mathematics to “potentially change the world”, which is hardly the exclusive domain of the social justice activists: anyone who thinks that engineers and doctors haven’t used math to change the world, has spent too long at rallies and is brainwashed beyond salvation.

Engineers and doctors have changed the world for the better, even if measured in socialjustice terms. A robust, demanding, contentful high school mathematics curriculum, even one that suffers from an “unfortunate scarcity of social justice connections” (yes, they did use that phrase to describe the standard high school math curriculum, because you know that when I see the “how to use your fucking graphing calculator to plot a straight line” unit, the first thing I think is “but where’s the social justice?”) will leave the door open for students to acquire the tools they will need to use math to change the world – whether or not they later choose to become social justice crusaders. A curriclum designed to “guide students towards a social justice orientation” will cripple them if they choose any path other than that one.

And given how deluded high school students seem to be about the nature of equations , it can’t be a good idea to let them anywhere near that horrible cover.

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