Opinion: State to eliminate ‘white’ math
True or False: There is at least one subject in our schools’ curriculum that cannot be taught from a racist perspective, and that subject is mathematics. Math is pure; it is unsullied by bias; it is the “Great Equalizer” of the classroom. It doesn’t care what color your skin is, where your ancestors came from, who or what you worship. But….
According to California’s Instructional Quality Commission, the answer is “false.” What? That can’t be right. Two plus two equals four; the square root of 81 is 9; any positive number raised to the zero power is one. These “truths” exist independent of any form of human bias. The state commission disagrees.
On January 22, the 18-member committee approved seven goals that it set for itself. Goal Three is to “provide support for the 2021 revision of the Mathematics Framework….” The “framework” is composed of “5 Strides on the Path to Math Equity.” And, Stride 1 is “Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction.” The committee met last week and will meet again in August to reaffirm its determination to put an end to “white supremacy” in the teaching of math.
Math, according to the document, should be taught in such a way that it can be used for “social justice.” Mathematics is a tool to “change the world,” and math teachers should mentor their pupils in ways that will encourage students to develop a “sociopolitical consciousness.”
Honest. These statements are part of the written framework. Teachers are admonished for addressing students’ mistakes, requiring students to show their work, and grading them on “getting the right answer.” Such practices, according to the framework, are indicators of “white supremacy culture in the mathematics classroom.”
The document explains that promoting the concept that “there are always right and wrong answers perpetuates ‘objectivity.’” This concept of “mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false.” So, under the new guidelines, is “objectivity” a bad thing?
Let’s say that I have three students in an online math class, and I give them a problem in beginning algebra. I don’t know who any of the students are, nor do I know their race, ethnicity, gender, or religion. The problem is “x divided by 8 plus 14 divided by 8 equals 2. Solve for “x.” Student A says 30, student B says 2, and student C says 16. The correct answer is 2. (2 divided by 8 plus 14 divided by 8 equals 16 divided by 8, and 16 divided by 8 equals 2.) That is the “objective” answer.
According to the new guidelines, I can’t grade student B as having a correct answer and, therefore by implication, letting students A and C know that their answers are incorrect. But, failure to correct students is just that: failure.
Through my first 15 years of school, I always spelled the word that means “to be” this way: existance. During my senior year of college, one professor circled the word and noted “Sp” (meaning “spelling”) in the margin of my paper. By that time in my educational career, I’d written “existance” so often that I did not accept my professor’s correction on face value. I opened my dictionary and looked for the word. “Existance” was not in the book, but “existence” was. I thanked my professor for catching the error. Had it not been for Dr. Henry Pitchford, I’d still be misspelling the word because I would have had no reason to change.
So, with regard to the math problem above, if students A and C are not corrected, how will they ever know that their computations were wrong? The math teacher who does not show them how to correct their method of solving the problem has failed them. The mathematics has nothing to do with bias or discrimination. It’s an objective tool, in the same way that a hammer is an objective tool. If you are banging a nail into a wall and hit your thumb with the hammer, it is not the hammer’s fault. Ah, but here’s where the California Commission comes into play.
Social activism or pure math
According to the new guidelines, math teachers must help students to “develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order.” Math according to the doctrine is a “tool for social activism.”
I wonder if “social activism” was in the mind of the man who built the first clock in America. He was Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806), an African American who was a self-taught mathematician and who also accurately forecast lunar and solar eclipses.
Was “political agitation” a goal of Katherine Johnson (1918-2020), an African American who held a Ph.D. degree in mathematics from West Virginia University and provided the orbital entry and launch window calculations that enabled John Glenn’s orbit around the moon and also coordinated the Apollo moon landing?
Do you think that Dr. Gladys West (1930), an African American, was contemplating cultural relevancy when she laid the groundwork for the invention of one of the most indispensable technological wonders of the modern world, the global positioning system (GPS)?
California, which was once an education model for the entire world, is already so politically correct that I don’t know if it’s okay to use a public men’s room, hug a close female friend, or use the personal pronouns he/him/his. We are now poised to become the global court jester.
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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.