Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


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

File under: Character Writ Large, Righteous Indignation, Those Who Can't, Queen of Sciences. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 8:54 pm.

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 educators in 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 social justice 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.


  1. Judging from the table of contents, it might prepare students for jobs preparing statistical expositions of positions espoused by lefty think-tanks.

    Priceless! Yet true. I’ve actually had the pleasure of debating the author of a report that was prepared for a Lefty Think Tank. Oh my, what to say . . they sure had a lot of compassion for their topic but very little grounding in the crucial math and economics arguments which were foundational to the issue.

    Perhaps they were proud graduates of the “1 + 1 = Feelings School of Mathematics.” Or perhaps they were taught by someone who had taken this graduate level class on Multicultural Mathematics where they were taught the crucial math subject matter needed to weave the Julekurv, which is a Norwegian Christmas basket or the Kente cloth, which represents the history, ethics, moral values, oral traditions, religious beliefs, and philosophies of African culture. That’s certainly more pertinent to our high school students than any of that algebra that Richard Cohen disdains.

    I love this post of yours. You go girl.

    - TangoMan — 3/2/2006 @ 10:32 pm

  2. It weirds me out that they couldn’t come up with enough buzzwords to fill their cover and instead decided to use most — but not all! — of them twice.

    - PhilipJ — 3/2/2006 @ 11:10 pm

  3. Chrichton has a very good treatment of the lefty think tank business in “State of Fear” (which I highly recommend). A favorite quote:

    “Her intentions are good”, Sarah said.
    “And her information is bad”, Kenner said. “A prescription for disaster.”

    - Ben Artin — 3/3/2006 @ 2:52 am

  4. (polymath’s attempt to earn a cookie as per the offer stated in the post)

    so, if i understand correctly, the authors believe that teaching basic logic skills (explicitly in a geometry class, implicitly elsewhere) contributes nothing (in absence of their textbook) to students’ ability to think critically.

    (emphasis added to increase probability of cookie)

    i certainly have evaluated political arguments (on both sides) by carfully analyzing their logical progressions, and i do believe that counts as thinking critically.

    (do i win my cookie?)

    - Polymath — 3/3/2006 @ 4:42 am

  5. Fascinating post, MS. And quite a link-fest, too. No one has bothered to read Who owns mathematics? in months. I’m sure it was the bullshit tag that drew everybody.

    - Zeno — 3/3/2006 @ 5:38 am

  6. Bah. Bring back Euclid’s Elements, I say.

    =Dogbert paw wave=

    - meep — 3/3/2006 @ 7:00 am

  7. What troubles me most about this book is that there exists a sufficiently large number of people who think this stuff is mathematics that a publisher would actually deem it worthy of publication.

    - Wacky Hermit — 3/3/2006 @ 7:18 am

  8. If you were studying Multiculturalism, etc., couldn’t you make an entire degree plan with courses that all revolve around the “multiculturalist” aspect of everything?

    I like social injustice, but can’t see it being taught as almost anything but a course in itself because it takes up too much time. I am actually taking a course now on multicultural philosophy.

    I was thinking, wouldn’t it make more sense to involve all cultures by presenting them through mathematics, the same way a History of Mathematics course would (that I do not think should replace algebra or geometry classes, but be a separate course in itself).

    I know some textbooks have offered the opinion that history of math should be put into textbooks to “spice it up”. Once countries started moving towards a more liberal arts education model, having to learn many disciplines, math and science got the back-burner. Why does math have to conform to everyone else? Why can’t everyone adapt to learning mathematics?

    If you (”you” in the universal sense) really want to argue on the premise that everyone can learn everything, there is enough inate logic/knowledge in everyone to understand the concepts given enough effort and time, then why should it be any different for mathematics? Why can’t people put enough effort into math to be able to get it on their own or even with the help of a tutor or professor/teacher?

    I guess I am just not convinced that students should not be held accountable for their own education anymore. Maybe my opinion will change tomorrow (and this is a horrible way to go to class in because I fear I will give all my students a hard time today because of the way I feel right now), but for right now I guess I would say we should not back down and fight the good fight.

    I second Meep’s comment about Euclid’s Elements.

    - Vanes63 — 3/3/2006 @ 7:50 am

  9. Cross-Curricular Mathematics

    Moebius Stripper asks an interesting question, in discussing a social-justice mathematics text: No, what bothers is this: is anyone familiar with a movement among social studies educators in secondary schools to use math in their courses, or does the m…

    - Screenshot: A Weblog — 3/3/2006 @ 8:51 am

  10. Just to clarify, my issue isn’t so much with the ideological bent of the text authors (though I obviously take issue with much of their position), but rather the ass-backwards process of using math to promote a predetermined ideological position, rather than to analyze it in good faith. This is just bad research, and it’s hardly the exclusive domain of lefty think tanks, and on this side of the border, one of the most egregious offenders is the Fraser Institute, which every year celebrates Tax Freedom Day - “the day the average Canadian stops working for the government and starts working for him or herself.” Alas, the whole study is absolutely soaking in the “everything is linear” fallacy, and the lefty Centre for Policy Alternatives presents an accessible, numerate explanation of how the Fraser Institute
    computes average taxes in a way that is very misleading given income distributions to create more support for their cause. (An equivalent, less political example of this common sort of error, which a friend mentioned to me the other day: the oft-cited statistic that “the average woman is 5′3″ and weighs 145 lbs.” No - the average height for an adult woman is 5′3″, and the average weight is 145 lbs. But heights are more clustered than weights, and the distribution of weights, like that of incomes, is heavily skewed to the right.)

    However, to the best of my knowledge, the Fraser Institute isn’t trying to infiltrate high school math classes.

    What cheeses me the most about this is that the purveyors of social justice education are crippling the very students they purport to help. Poor and minority students’ best ticket out of oppression is a solid technical background, not a bunch of squishy courses that prepare them only to examine, not transcend, their own oppression. (Buckminster Fuller said something about serious progress coming from science, not politics, but I can’t find the quote.)

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/3/2006 @ 9:23 am

  11. A couple of the links in Who owns mathematics? were broken, so I fixed them this afternoon. Perakh’s stuff is good reading and I was pleased to discover that it’s still available at talkreason.org.

    - Zeno — 3/3/2006 @ 3:36 pm

  12. is anyone familiar with a movement among social studies educators in secondary schools to use math in their courses

    Well, here’s a move ment of one.

    - Jeffrey Boulier — 3/3/2006 @ 4:27 pm

  13. However, to the best of my knowledge, the Fraser Institute isn’t trying to infiltrate high school math classes.

    No, just telling us which ones are best. :)

    - Nicholas — 3/3/2006 @ 7:34 pm

  14. OK, home from work now and with time to provide actual replies:

    TangoMan - I see that that’s for a graduate level course in mathematics education. Mmm. All I can say is, I’ve never had the pleasure of teaching the math for future elementary school teachers course, but everyone I know who has…has stories that would make the ones I’ve written at TD&M look encouraging by comparison.

    PhillipJ - heh, that struck me too. I mean, surely they could have worked in “heteronormativity”, “privilege”, and “patriarchy”, at the very least.

    Polymath - hmm, that’s not quite what I had in mind, but you can have a cookie. Here are the ones I made for a calculus class I once taught. They’re good, I promise.

    Vanes63 - yeah, a lot of the multicultural math stuff sounds like it could fit in well rather nicely in a history of math class. And I might even be interested in taking such a course; I’m just not arguing that it should replace a math math course.

    Jeffrey Boulier - oh, nice (and welcome!). Every journey begins with a single step, and all…

    Nicholas - oh, I know. I was going to bring that up as an even more flagrant abuse of statistics. The Fraser Institute’s annual review of high schools ranks them based on a number of criteria, one of which gives scores that are inversely related to the gender gap across the courses offered by the school. One year, my brother’s school got top marks in that category: there was no gender gap at all. Why? Because my brother attended an all-boys school.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/3/2006 @ 9:27 pm

  15. This reminds me of a particularly bad chapter in a cognitive science book I had, which attempted to use the Halting Problem to prove the impossibility of AI. It really only managed to prove how poor the author’s grasp of the Halting Problem was.

    Also, I can’t stop smirking at “COST OF WAR + ANTI-BIAS = CRITICAL THINKING”. What?

    Although, POP CULTURE ≤ CRITICAL THINKING almost makes sense.

    - Geoff — 3/4/2006 @ 7:40 am

  16. I like your cookie recipe handout. Can I use it next time I teach calculus?

    - Chris Phan — 3/4/2006 @ 3:21 pm

  17. teaching the math for future elementary school teachers course, but everyone I know who has…has stories that would make the ones I’ve written at TD&M look encouraging by comparison.

    Have you ever driven by an accident and wanted to see more of the grisly detail even though you knew that you’d be disgusted at what you saw? I know that I’ll likely fall into the pits of dispair on reading such stories but my curiousity is piqued by how it could possibly be construed that what you’ve written here could be seen as encouraging when compared to such stories.

    Please, can you gather such stories for us. With sugar on top ;)

    - TangoMan — 3/4/2006 @ 9:31 pm

  18. Chris (and others): the cookie recipe is public domain. I’ll send you the LaTeX source if you want. Also available by request: Polynoatmeal cookies, and the ones I baked for Hallowe’en - Trig or Treat.

    Tangoman, Rudbeckia Hirta at Learning Curves had the pleasure of teaching such a course, and has documented her experiences. Some posts she’s written on the topic: 1, 2, 3, 4.

    My officemate taught my school’s version of such a class last year. On the day before classes began, the head of the department of education drew her aside to welcome her and brief her on her job. The department head explained, very clearly, that my officemate was employed by the math department, not the education department, and therefore, her job was not to teach her students how to teach elementary school-level math. Her job was to teach her students elementary school-level math. For college credit.

    Let’s just say that when my students last year complained that my class was too hard, at least they were (usually) making that complaint about high school math, not grade 3 math.

    Another colleague of mine last year taught that course. This colleague was the most gentle, patient person I’ve ever met - and he was a very competent instructor, too. This didn’t stop his students from rioting when he assigned them - gasp! - word problems. An example of the sort of word problems he’d give his future teachers:

    Bob has $20. He gives 15% of it to Susie. How much does he have left?

    Half a dozen students threw fits, because this was a math class, not an English class, and my colleague had no right to test them on their English.

    When he told me this story, my jaw had already dropped, but it gets better: 1) Many of the students I taught last year were exchange students whose English was rather poor. However, none of the students complaining that they were being tested on their English fell into that category. All of those students were unilingual anglophones. 2) My colleague the teacher’s first language was not English.

    That’s all I have for now. But, I should mention that the students could be forgiven, to some extent, for their gripes, as the textbook my Island U colleagues used was among the most unnecessarily confusing I’ve ever encountered. In my younger, more innocent days, I asked my officemate, out of genuine (not morbid) curiosity, what her future teachers would be learning that week. She opened the text to show me: “Tomorrow we’ll be covering three methods of multiplication. There’s the chart method, the grid method, and the lattice method.” I am not making this up. (Of course, the three methods are identical in content; one of them involves placing digits horizontally, another vertically, and another diagonally. No, I don’t remember which is which.)

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/5/2006 @ 8:35 am

  19. One of the things I find amusing about these complaints that mathematics is socially biased, etc, is that they all give examples of simple word problems. Have these people never done advanced mathematics?

    - Tracy W — 3/5/2006 @ 5:57 pm

  20. What? They didn’t go over the calculator method of multiplication?

    - meep — 3/6/2006 @ 2:16 am

  21. Next time I’m stuck in my office with nothing to do, I’ll make you some scans of the math-for-elementary-ed students’ final exams. I’ll send you the problem where I asked them to subtract a three digit whole number from a (larger) three digit whole number, and some of them did not succeed. Much more exciting than the usual incompetence with fractions.

    - Rudbeckia Hirta — 3/6/2006 @ 2:17 pm

  22. Oh, yes, do scan some of those papers. We here at TD&M love us some train wrecks.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/7/2006 @ 11:18 pm

  23. I tried my own fisking of the Rethinking Mathematics people on my own blog at
    http://rightontheleftcoast.blogspot.com/2005/07/math-for-social-justice-part-1.html and

    I think we agree on this topic.

    - Darren — 3/8/2006 @ 8:46 am

  24. Fun and rants at the carnival

    This week’s Carnival of Education, hosted by Math and Text, features a wonderful post by Tall, Dark and Mysterious on a new social justice ‘n math book. TD&M, a college math professor, writes:This book pisses me off. It pisses me…

    - joannejacobs.com — 3/8/2006 @ 9:12 am

  25. Great post. I’m going to keep the URL around in case somebody starts pushing this kind of stuff off as “curriculum” around here.

    - Robert — 3/8/2006 @ 10:39 am

  26. Dear Moebius,
    I AM a social studies educator who expects my students to be able to do math when I request it. And I am just as outraged about this idiotic text as you are. The message here: Ooooh, math is too hard, so let’s teach LESS of it. Of course, this kind of text will be loved by those who are weak in content but “love the kids” and want them to be able to claim a math credit for graduation purposes that they haven’t earned.

    And to Jeffrey Boulier, thanks for the shout-out!

    - Ms Cornelius — 3/8/2006 @ 4:25 pm

  27. Ms Cornelius - thank you, and I hear ya. I did know that some of you were out there, and it’s good that we math nerds won’t have to fight this battle alone. (Incidentally, one of my best friends is an English prof - a highly numerate one; she’s tutored college-level math - and no one is more frustrated than she is about the commonly-held notion that the humanities are for people who aren’t smart enough to do math.)

    I’m reminded of a course called “Science in Society” that I took in high school. I expected it to be a class that dealt with medical ethics, environmental concerns, and the like; it turned out to be a science credit for students who couldn’t hack the real math/science courses. Sigh.

    - Moebius Stripper — 3/8/2006 @ 8:07 pm

  28. Yeah, we’ve got those courses too, and they make me insane.

    That’s why merely increasing the number of credits required in a subject like math or science isn’t enough. Raise the number of REAL credits, and you get more drop-outs. Get more drop-outs, and your reputation and remuneration from the state suffers. The easy way is to just water down the existing material in subjects that are viewed as especially “challenging.” I truly believe this is why our students have attained so little knowledge in math, science, reading, you name it. We’ve lowered our standards to the lowest common denominator (um, math pun) supposedly for the sake of the children, when, in reality, it is for the convenience of the Educrats.

    Sorry. Rant in abeyance.

    - Ms Cornelius — 3/9/2006 @ 4:08 pm

  29. Catching up on the Carnivals

    I’ve manged to completely miss the Carnival of Education lately, so here’s last week’s and here’s this week’s versions. Last week’s Carnival linked to a fantastic rant about more-pious-than-thee textbooks that mix “social justice” with basic ma…

    - Number 2 Pencil — 3/15/2006 @ 9:14 am

  30. At one point they say that it’s ever so much better to teach base-20 math if you know all about the Mayas (who might just well be your ancestors). I wonder, though, if they go into that part of Mayan history about human sacrifice, which involved cutting out the beating heart of a living victim.

    If anyone hasn’t slogged through the Introduction to get to the “how it should be done” examples, go there and look for the two “variations on a problem” example. (Bad old way: 3 kids go into a candy store and buy 12 candybars at 43c. How much did they spend? Brave New Way: 3 oppressed children earn 43c a day making shoes for Wal-Mart. They work 14 hours a day. After their cruel boss takes out their deductions, hw much do they make?)

    They’re right. It’s getting harder all the time to do satire.

    And they even cite “historian Howard Zinn” in the section about how to defeat those neanderthals who think that maybe more emphasis ought to be placed on the mecahnics of arithmetic.

    - Mike Z — 3/16/2006 @ 2:53 pm

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