Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

3/2/2006

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.

1/24/2006

I Can’t Believe It’s Government!

File under: Character Writ Large, Home And Native Land. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 2:55 pm.

Oh, Canada, did you just vote in an even more unstable government than we had last time? You did, didn’t you? Whatever are we going to do with you?

I have an idea: haul in some cameras and a reality TV crew, because The Real World: House of Commons damn near writes itself. Think about it: we’ve got the most right-wing prime minister this country has had in, well, ever, and the man’s got no history of consensus-building to speak of; but never before has it been so vital to a Canadian prime minister’s political survival that he compromise with the other parties in the House. In this minority government - which is weaker than most polls predicted - Harper is going to have to compromise with some party on every issue. And, oh, the possibilities:

Behind door number one, we have the Liberals, whom Harper slammed as corrupt at every turn! Will compromising with the Liberals mean compromising his integrity?

Alternatively, Harper could open door number two, behind which we find…the separatist Bloc. How cozy can Harper get with them before alienating his western base, who have long complained about the government being determined by Ontario and who would therefore probably not take terribly well to being at the mercy of Quebec?

Fortunately, there’s a third option: Harper can go with door number three and deal with the Satanic NDP! Oh - wait - that won’t quite give him a majority of seats. He’d have to get the radio shock jock in on that one!

I predict high ratings. Wonder how long it’ll be till the third season…

1/20/2006

Electoral Reform, or, In Which the Author Extrapolates Wildly From an Extremely Small and Biased Sample

File under: Character Writ Large, Queen of Sciences, Welcome To The Occupation. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 9:24 pm.

On the agenda at work today: coordinate a meeting that as many as possible of two dozen-odd clients would be able to attend. Inane administrative duty? No: opportunity for field research into alternative voting systems!

Dear clients, I wrote, I’d like to hold a meeting with you during the first week of March. Could you please email me a list of times when you will be available during that week (eg, “Monday morning”, “Thursday afternoon”, etc)? If you have some times that are better than others, feel free to send that information as well (eg, “I am free Monday and Tuesday mornings, but the best times are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons”). I’m going to do my best to accommodate as many of you as possible, but I can’t guarantee anything.

And I got responses, some of which provided me with nice, STV-compliant rankings. But, oh, the others - for instance, the dozen that went something like this:

dear moebius stripper

i am free tuesday mornings

Thank you for your quick response, I wrote back, But you’re a retired grandmother and like hell that’s the only time slot you have free Are there any other times you have available? I am trying to accommodate as many people as possible, and while I can’t guarantee that everyone will get their first choice, I will have a better chance of arranging a meeting that most people can attend if I have more options.

dear moebius stripper

yes there are other times i could come but tuesday mornings are the best, i do not want the meeting any other time.

Fully half of my clients did not want to provide me with their second choice because they were afraid that doing so would weaken their first choice vote. I’m wondering now how widespread this attitude is - does it account for a significant proportion of votes against electoral reform? If so, it’s both selfish and irrational, because we’re probably going to end up with a meeting date that hardly accommodates anyone.

Kind of like the government we’re going to end up with on Monday.

1/6/2006

Up is down. Black is white. Increased taxes are tax relief.

File under: Character Writ Large, Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 10:27 pm.

Could someone please help me make sense of the (partial) Conservative tax plan? Pretty please? Because -

A Tory plan to raise personal income taxes on low income earners is part of an overall tax strategy that will result in more tax relief for Canadians, Tory MP Jason Kenney said Friday.

- and I cannot for the life of me fathom a universe in which raising taxes on low income earners could possibly be part of an overall tax strategy that will result in more tax relief for Canadians. The rest of this article, as I read it, seems to consist of “seriously, it IS, we swear”, followed by some chit-chat about the party’s much-maligned proposal to cut the GST, and then this:

Kenney said they voted against the Liberal tax cuts [income tax cuts - MS] because they disagreed with their fiscal priorities, adding they would have “spent smarter and cut taxes deeper.”

What? No, I - what? The Conservatives would have cut taxes deeper, and that’s why they’re…increasing income taxes? Does this remind anyone of preschoolers fighting? “I don’t like you, even though I kind of like your toys, so let’s play a game that I hate.”

Maybe this will all make more sense when the party announces its tax package, which it hasn’t done yet, but really, why bother? Seems to me that “tax hikes=tax relief” is more or less on par with “0=1″ in terms of starting points; in other words, is there anything this tax package won’t promise?

In the meantime, have at it, readers. Bonus points for using Tarot cards and Ouija boards.

12/17/2005

But will they be the sensitive motherly types, or the nagging shrews?

File under: Character Writ Large, Righteous Indignation, XX Marks the Spot, Home And Native Land. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 6:30 pm.

Last night, the three Men Who Would Be Prime Minister (and the One Who Would Abolish The Position Entirely) were asked during the first English debate: what to do about all the heckling in Parliament? How to restore civility to the House of Commons?

To which Jack Layton, feminist, replied:

Well I’ve told my caucus that we won’t shout out and disrupt Parliament. And I think there’s one other thing we should do and that’s have a lot more women in Parliament. I’m very happy that our party has the highest percentage of women candidates ever that any political party has ever presented in an election, 37%. And mark my words - the tone of that house would change if we had a lot more women there, and voting NDP will help make that happen.

Women, see, are more polite than men. Really! Says so right there on TV! And politeness is good, and we want the House of Commons to be more polite, but we can’t very well expect the menfolk to behave by themselves, so let’s bring in more women to set the tone of Parliament. It’s a great deal: Layton gets to send the wimminfolk to do the dirty work, while collecting affirmative action points, all at no cost to himself!

Where have I seen this before? That’s right, grad school. I am leery of most manifestations of affirmative action to begin with, but at least I find a good many of them to be undertaken in good faith; this particular strain, however, is just odious.

Carolyn Ryan, one of four CBC journalists who live-blogged the debate, speaks for me:

Did Layton really just say his party would increase civility in the House of Commons by electing more women? That’s placing a big burden on the gender that produced Sheila Copps, Hedy Fry, and Deborah Grey. Are the female MPs supposed to shush their male counterparts when they get raucous? Should they hold tea parties in the foyer? Will they bring in a “bad-word jar,” with MPs having to pay a twonie every time they heckle? Puh-lease. Why not just promise to elect more polite people as MPs, or discipline the ones you’ve got now?

Why not? I know why not: because Layton knows better than to make promises he can’t keep. Better to set standards that his green women MPs won’t be able to live up to, and let them take the fall when they inevitably fail.

12/13/2005

Quick, somebody hand me a violin that only dogs can hear:

File under: Character Writ Large, Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 10:45 pm.

Paul Martin, who shall remain nameless, has hurt David Wilkins’s feelings:

“Just think about this. What if one of our best friends criticized you directly and incorrectly almost relentlessly? What if that friend’s agenda was to highlight your perceived flaws while avoiding mentioning your successes? What if that friend demanded respect but offered little in return?” Wilkins asked.

I’ll be honest: I’d feel pretty bad.

Then again, my mommy always said that if your best friend doesn’t visit you for thirty years and imposes tariffs on your lumber even when NAFTA tells them not to and doesn’t seem to mind deporting your citizens to be tortured in foreign countries, then maybe they’re not really your friend after all.

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