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 relevant. 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

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 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