Two recent posts (links at end) discussed the progressive attack upon classical liberal knowledge and natural law. One includes a series of questions getting at the difference between liberal and leftest orientations on many cultural issues of the day. A thoughtful comment educated me on the question of musical greatness by referencing a number of classical greats who were not dead white guys. That led me to this post concerning mathematics and racial identity groups.
When the comment appeared, I happened to be reading a substack article by John McWhorter Is it racist to expect black kids to do math for real? Excerpts in italics with my bolds.
Yes, serious people are arguing this. Make sure they don’t infect your school district.
There is a document getting around called Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction, a guide put together by a group of educators. It has a black boy on the cover.
The idea is to show us how our racial reckoning of late ought change how we expose black kids to math. I suppose the counsel is also intended for kids of other types of melanin, but this is in essence a document that could be called “Math For Black Kids.”
The latest is that state-level policy makers in Oregon are especially intrigued by this document. There is all reason to suppose that its influence will spread more widely.
And this is to be resisted, as this lovely pamphlet is teaching us that it is racist to expect black kids to master the precision of math.
To wit – its message, penned by people who consider themselves some of the most morally advanced souls in the history of the human species, is one that Strom Thurmond would have happily taken a swig of whiskey to.
Now, part of “antiracist math teaching” here is to teach about black mathematicians (the authors have this as kids “reclaiming their mathematical ancestry” – the jargon is, we must admit, beautiful) or to air facts such as that the traditional Yoruba approach to numbers (and wow, numbers in Yoruba, I note as linguist me, are indeed fierce!) use base 20. No one would object to these things, nor to the idea that we “teach students of color about the career and financial opportunities in math and STEM fields.”
But 96% of people reading this kind of thing will be thinking “Yeah, but what about the math??”
And there is nothing white supremacist in that question. The substance of a serious proposal about teaching math will be, well, teaching how to do math itself, not its history and sociology.
More to the point is that this entire document is focused on an idea that making black kids be precise is immoral.
Yes, the document pays lip service otherwise, claiming at one point to seek to “teach rich, thoughtful, complex mathematics.” And rather often, the word praxis is used. But the thrust of this pamphlet is that:
1. a focus on getting the “right” answer is “perfectionism” or “either/or thinking;”
2. the idea that teachers are teachers and students are learners is wrong;
3. to think of it as a problem that the expectations you have of students are not met is racist;
4. to teach math in a linear fashion with skills taught in sequence is racist;
5. to value “procedural fluency” – i.e. knowing how to do the fractions, long division … — over “conceptual knowledge” is racist. That is, black kids are brilliant to know what math is trying to do, to know “what it’s all about,” rather than to actually do the math, just as many of us read about what physics or astrophysics accomplishes without ever intending to master the math that led to the conclusions;
6. to require students to “show their work” is racist;
7. requiring students to raise their hand before speaking “can reinforce paternalism and powerhoarding, in addition to breaking the process of thinking, learning, and communicating.”
You may wonder if this is a cartoon but no, this is real! This is actually what this document tells us, again and again. This, folks, is the “Critical Race Theory” that so many of us are resisting, not a simple program for “social justice.” To distrust this document is not to be against social justice, but against racism.
Many will dislike the general flavor of it but, amidst so much we all have to pay attention to, may question just what we must object to specifically about Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction.
There are two things. Racism and religion. Just those.
As in, first it is racism propounded as antiracism. Black kids shouldn’t expected to master the precision of math and should be celebrated for talking around it, gamely approximating its answers and saying why it can be dangerous? This is bigotry right out of Reconstruction, Tulsa, Selma, and Charlottesville.
Second, it is not science but scripture. It claims to be about teaching math while founded on shielding students from the requirement to actually do it. This is unempirical. It does so with an implication that only a moral transgressor numb to some larger point would question the contradiction. This is, as such, a religious document, telling you to accept that Jesus walked on water.
Humans may grievously sacrifice the 9-year-old, the virgin, or the widow upon the pyre in worship of a God. Too, humans may sacrifice the black kid from the work of mastering the gift of math, in favor of showing that they are enlightened enough to understand that her life may be affected by racism and that therefore ,she should be shielded from anything that is a genuine challenge.
This is not pedagogy; it is preaching.
In addition to the above, progressives attack math on grounds of gender equality. You see, the majority of serious mathematicians are not only white, but male. Here’s where progressives and their identity politics are so wrong and destructive. In some fields of human endeavor, such as the arts or entertainment, the judgment of quality is a individual right and freedom, a matter of opinion. People who attend to music, for example, develop a sense of excellence informed by their experiences. Despite differing musical tastes, there are still standards that determine what will be widely appreciated as high quality. Genres involve their own measures and disciplines by which performances are judged. Renowned classical pianist Arthur Rubinstein commented: “If I miss a day of practice, I can tell it in my performance. More than a day, and the critics take note. Skip a week, and the world knows.”
Science and especially mathematics are different because they contain elements of knowledge, not subject to opinion. When asked how many apples you have after adding two more to the two you already have, the only answer is “four’, by the laws of mathematics. It is not a matter of opinion. Of course, beyond the core of scientific knowledge and logic, many questions arise and diverse theories form and are debated. But this is about the data and facts. Referring to identity groups of scientists is a distraction and undermines the process of finding truth.
Sports is an interesting field combining science and art. A movie about basketball was titled after the cliche: “White Guys Can’t Jump.” There are other cliches like “Black Guys Can’t Skate.” But those who follow a sport, like NBA players and their fans, know that it is the jumping (and associated skills) that matter, and that some white guys are also world class. Importantly, there are rules dictating game play, and scores define winners and losers. Talent, discipline and hard work are rewarded without appeal to victimage or racial injustice. As McWhorter says above, overloading math (or science, or sport) with sociology and history only inflames emotions and destroys both the art and the science.
See also 21 Perversions Inflicted by Wokeness