Janie B. Cheaney – Social justice math


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, March 18th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. One public school district is thinking of infusing revisionist history into math instruction. Here’s WORLD’s Janie B. Cheaney.  

JANIE B. CHEANEY, COMMENTATOR: The Seattle school board is considering new guidelines for what might be called “social justice math.” The reason for the proposed changes, as reported by Education Week, is, quote, “to infuse all K-through-12 math classes with ethnic studies questions that encourage students to explore how math has been ‘appropriated’ by Western culture and used in systems of power and oppression.”

Math felt like a tool of oppression to me in junior high, but that’s not the point. The point is, yes, to teach math functions—but also teach how two plus two has been used to figure the profits of slavery and the cost/benefit ratio of colonizing armies.

The proposed guidelines meet the approval of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. A task-force report from the council, called “The Purpose of Catalyzing Change” lays out several appropriate goals for quantitative learning. But it also attempts to make math a wrap-around subject for psychological reflection. Students should be encouraged to develop a positive “mathematical identity” and “mathematical agency.” 

Agency is a good thing if it means giving a high school senior the confidence to start a lawn-care business or build a robot. But if it means learning just enough about appropriation to browbeat the oppressors, it’s pretty much limited to the faculty lounge.

“Rehumanizing” is another key word, as if math had somehow been stripped of its natural warmth and sympathy. Rehumanizing means that teachers, quote, “understand the roles of power, privilege, and oppression in the history of mathematics education.” 

Not everyone is a fan. Education Week interviewed one math professional who had misgivings: “You don’t need to talk about liberation and oppression and how Western mathematics has somehow taken over. It just turns people off and makes the goal of being inclusive that much tougher.” That view makes perfect sense, but does the fact that this person preferred to remain anonymous indicate that oppression is now coming from other quarters?

Frances Schaeffer, among others, saw that the “fact/value” split (that is, separating objective information from a philosophical worldview) would leave us with no reliable means of distinguishing fact from value.

And since there is no such thing as “neutral” education, the fact part of the equation is going to migrate up to the value, and vice versa.

That seems to be happening in education. For 50 years or more, we tried to keep subjective principles in the theoretical upper story, while objective facts occupied the classroom below. But the new indisputable “fact” of history is how all Western religions, philosophies, and rational structures are merely power grabs. This is actually a value judgment, but it has become the bedrock of educational theory. What began in university education schools is spreading to elementary arithmetic, and how much math—or anything else—are the kids going to learn if they start with the premise that it was all a big cheat?

I’m Janie B. Cheaney.


(Photo/National Council of Teachers of Mathematics)

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One comment on “Janie B. Cheaney – Social justice math

  1. Sam Richards says:

    Two thoughts about the new math guidelines. Rodney Starks, in The Triumph of Reason, views mathematics much more positively: math, by rationalizing the world of finance allowed investment and innovation to take off. His review of the woolens industry exemplifies this progress–contradicting math as a “power grab.”

    Second, Nancy Pearcey expounds on the 19th century bifurcation of knowledge. The upper story houses faith, religion and values, “useless or unreal knowledge” whereas the lower story pertains to science and math, “useful/real knowledge.” Such an artful dodge prejudices the outcome in secular terms giving away the whole ballgame before the first Socratic pitch is thrown.

    These new mathematics guidelines threaten to reverse the historically dismissive posture (see Pearcey) by injecting Marxist social ideology (“math is a power grab”) into the curriculum. What would be their basis for relocating “values” in the mathematical realm of knowledge? Are they really sure they want to rehabilitate “values” in this manner?! (I never agreed with the two story paradigm which was conceived, perhaps, to drive a wedge between God and science.)

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