Idaho's Weekly Journal of Local & National Commentary Week 2815


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by Free Market Duck


   (Sometimes an essay is so great, so relevant, one must quote it in its entirety.  The following is such an essay, by Diane Ravitch from the Wall Street Journal on June 20, 2005.)

   It seems our math educators no longer believe in the beauty and power of the principles of mathematics.  They are continually in search of a fix that will make it easy, relevant, fun, and even politically correct.  In the early 1990s, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics issued standards that disparaged basic skills like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, since all of these could be easily performed on a calculator.  The Council preferred real life problem solving, using everyday situations.  Attempts to solve problems without basic skills caused some critics, especially professional mathematicians, to deride the “new, new math” as “rainforest algebra.”

   In a comparison of a 1973 algebra textbook and a 1998 “contemporary mathematics” textbook, Williamson Evers and Paul Clopton found a dramatic change in topics.  In the 1973 book, for example, the index for the letter “F” included “factors, factoring, fallacies, finite decimal, finite set, formulas, fractions, and functions.”  In the 1998 book, the index listed “families (in poverty data), fast food nutrition data, fat in fast food, feasibility study, feeding tours, Ferris wheel, fish, fishing, flags, flight, floor plan, flower beds, food, football, Ford Mustang, franchises, and fund-raising carnival.”

   Those were the days of innocent dumbing-down.  Now mathematics is being nudged into a specifically political direction by educators who call themselves “critical theorists.”  They advocate using mathematics as a tool to advance social justice.  Social justice math relies on political and cultural relevance to guide math instruction.  One of its precepts is “ethnomathematics,” that is, the belief that different cultures have evolved different ways of using mathematics, and that students will learn best if taught in the ways that relate to their ancestral culture.  From this perspective, traditional mathematics – the mathematics taught in universities around the world – is the property of Western Civilization and is inexorably linked with the values of the oppressors and conquerors.  The culturally attuned teacher will learn about the counting system of the ancient Mayans, ancient Africans, Papua New Guineans, and other “non-mainstream” cultures.

   Partisans of social justice mathematics advocate an explicitly political agenda in the classroom.  A new textbook, “Rethinking Mathematics:  Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers,” shows how problem solving, ethnomathematics and political action can be merged.  Among its topics are:  “Sweatshop Accounting,” with units on poverty, globalization, and the unequal distribution of wealth.  Another topic, drawn directly from ethnomathematics, is “Chicanos Have Math in Their Blood.”  Others include “The Transnational Capital Auction,” “Multicultural Math,” “and “Home Buying While Brown or Black.”  Units of study include racial profiling, the war in Iraq, corporate control of the media, and environmental racism.  The theory behind the book is that “teaching math in a neutral manner is not possible.”  Teachers are supposed to vary the teaching of mathematics in relation to their students’ race, gender, ethnicity, and community.

   This fusion of political correctness and relevance may be the next big thing to rock mathematics education, appealing as it does to political activists and to ethnic chauvinists.

   It seems terribly old-fashioned to point out that the countries that regularly beat our students in international math tests of mathematics do not use the subject to steer students into political action.  They teach them instead that mathematics is a universal language that is as relevant and meaningful in Tokyo as it is in Paris, Nairobi and Chicago.  The students who learn this universal language well will be the builders and shapers of technology in the 21st century.  The students in American classes who fall prey to the political designs of their teachers and professors will not.

   (Ms. Ravitch is an historian of education at New York University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a member of the Koret Task Force at the Hoover Institution.)

    Note:  Those who still think that philosophy doesn’t matter, that philosophy is simply “idealism” juxtaposed to the “real world,” don’t get it yet.  As Ayn Rand would have said, ethnomathematics has nothing to do with mathematics per se and everything to do with an attempt to push the bankrupt philosophy of subjective altruistic collectivism.  Ethnomathematics is an attack against the individual, against individual rights and free market principles, against objective, logical, universal thinking, against the categorization of logical thought processes – conceptual thinking – which allow individuals to think in terms of universal principles instead of disconnected, illogical “thought globs.”  At its worse, ethnomathematics is a philosophical attack against the thinking process, not math per se, and therein lies its chief danger for American students.  --  FM Duck 

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