Social Justice Warriors are Coming for Mathematics

And they're coming hard and fast

By William M Briggs Published on October 19, 2017

Great news! For those kids who will be taught math by teachers graduating from Texas State University’s Math Education program, life just got easier.

This is bound to be confusing, so keep this fact in mind. Universities hire Math Education professors, whose job is to train primary and secondary education math teachers. Got it?

According to the not-unusual official want-ad, Texas State University is looking for math education professorial candidates

… who share our commitment to educational equity, to social justice, and to the recruitment and high-quality education of students from historically underserved and systemically marginalized communities. We are especially interested in applicants whose scholarly interests and work include attention to the concerns of race, ethnicity, multilingualism, immigrant, social class, gender, and diversity, broadly defined.

∫ ex dx = White Privilege

Social-Justice-Warrior-minded professors whose job is to train future math teachers will thus be hired.

You might think these prospective math teachers would learn from these professors the best ways to teach that the indefinite integral of the tangent of x with respect to x equals the negative log of the absolute value of the cosine of x, plus a constant. They might instead be taught that Leibniz and Newton, the inventors of the calculus, were white Christian men. And were therefore probably racist and sexist and can be ignored.

That’s only partly a joke.

Inequality ≠ Injustice

Why are SJWs coming for math? Because it turns out not everybody can learn math equally well. Just as everybody cannot be a professional basketball player. But SJWs insist that everybody must. So, any “disparities” in learning must be caused by social injustice.

Yet just as everybody cannot be over six feet tall, not everybody has the same facility with math. Some are better at it, some worse. Some are better because of innate talent and industriousness. Some are better because circumstance allows them to use their talents.

But there’s no evidence except desire that everybody can learn math equally well, even under identical circumstances. Equity is desired, as the ad says, but it will never be reached.

Sometimes ∑ Males > ∑ Females

Math class, as Barbie rightly said, is tough. That toughness is why official groups of math education specialists fret that “mathematics achievement … measured by standardized tests, has been used as a gatekeeping tool to sort and rank students.”

This ranking often shows “disparities” in “race, class, and gender.” And that, they suppose, is unjust.

There are only two things that can be done to remove these “disparities.” The first is obvious: have under-performing students study harder whilst improving their studying circumstances. Much money and effort were spent on this praiseworthy method. Yet certain “disparities” persisted. Some became more glaring at advanced levels.

Mathematics ∉ My Culture

This leads to the second erasure method: redefine what mathematics means.

In an upcoming article in Academic Questions, I review the book Critical Mathematics Education: Theory, Praxis, and Reality. It contains several essays describing the latest fads in the field.

One of the hottest topics is “ethnomathematics.” This is a system whereby we let each person or culture define what math is to them.

Partly this makes sense. If you’re searching for relevant math examples, familiarity helps. In Canada, students will find rates of tooth loss and puck speed of interest. In the USA you might calculate how much revenue the NFL will lose as it switches its focus from sports to social justice. Examples are easy to discover.

But ethnomathematics is also used to explain why the tough stuff, and even math itself, isn’t important — and can thus be ignored. Some math educators say culturally defined math is a human “right.”

Social Justice × xx = 0

To be jettisoned (says one the book’s authors) are the “criteria of validity, reliability, and objectivity as they are understood and applied in scientific paradigm research.” In their place will come an intense awareness of “social class,” diversity, equality, and all the other standard goals of modern academia.

That attitude explains books like Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice: Conversations with Educators. It promises to help educators “recognize the important role that mathematics teaching plays in helping students to understand and overcome social injustice and inequality.”

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Take two influential organizations, the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM) and TODOS: Mathematics for ALL. They state that they “ratify social justice as a key priority in the access to, engagement with, and advancement in mathematics education for our country’s youth.”

They say, “a social justice stance interrogates and challenges the roles power, privilege, and oppression play in the current unjust system of mathematics education-and in society as a whole.”

Math itself must fade into the background to fit in all these rich educational concepts. But that’s fine. Because as math goes away, so will disparities in math education.

Shhh!

Note that the professors here are in math education and not math departments. You’re not supposed to say so, because the professoriate likes to paint itself as one big happy family. But the opinion math professors have for math education faculty is often the same as the opinion Hillary Clinton has of you.

And if this new math teaching fad catches on, the math gap between real mathematicians and everyone else will only grow wider.

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