A Professor Who Wants to Politicize Mathematics

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Politically correct approaches to education took root in the soft social sciences back in the 1970s and have been spreading outward ever since. The Martin Center reported not long ago that they are starting to worm their way into engineering.

If you found that unnerving, here is more bad news. Mathematics is now under attack as well. Campus Reform’s Toni Airaksinen brings us the bad news in her October 23 article, “Prof: Algebra, geometry perpetuate white privilege.”

The article is about University of Illinois professor Rochelle Gutierrez, who teaches “math education.” Math education, like “engineering education,” is not really about the core concepts of the field, but rather about progressive, multicultural notions about how the subjects should be taught for “inclusion.”

Professor Gutierrez worries that math teachers are not aware of the “politics that mathematics brings” in society. But exactly how can such a purely logical and abstract field as math have any political effects?

She explains, “On many levels, mathematics itself operates as Whiteness. Who gets credit for doing and developing mathematics, who is capable of mathematics and who is seen as part of the mathematical community is generally viewed as White.”

One might ask how she knows that to be true. What evidence is there to show that mathematics is “generally” viewed as anything other than a demanding field?

What is at work here is nothing more than a professor keeping herself busy by playing around with one of the obsessions of leftism, namely that group identity is of overriding importance to everyone. Leftists expect Black, Hispanic, Native Americans, and other supposedly oppressed groups to view the world with a kind of tribal animosity. If mathematics or any other field of knowledge was overly influenced by individuals who happened to be “white,” then they should feel excluded from it.

Gutierrez continues, explaining that “curricula emphasizing terms like the Pythagorean Theorem and pi perpetuate a perception that mathematics was largely developed by Greeks and other Europeans.” It was, but why should any student today care?

This is leftist groupthink on full display. If a black student, for instance, hears that a mathematician named Pythagoras, who happened to live in the nation we now call Greece, came up with an important theorem in geometry, he’s supposed to think, “I’m not like Pythagoras – my ancestry is different – so I feel that his theorem is not something I can relate to.”

But no student is going to think that way unless prompted to do so by “progressive” teachers. They do students a disservice when they treat them like members of tribes with nothing in common with the rest of mankind, rather than as individuals with minds who are able to learn from the accumulated knowledge of mankind.

When the indomitable high school math teacher Jaime Escalante took on the challenge of teaching tough inner-city kids mathematics, he did not fret about whether they would find the subject too “white” for them.  He just taught the concepts and the students learned them.

Or consider these three black women: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. They grew up during the era of segregated schooling in the South, yet provided invaluable mathematical expertise for NASA’s Mercury program. (Their story was told recently in the movie “Hidden Figures.”) Fortunately, they didn’t think of math as belonging to any particular race. Math was open to all human beings.

Gutierrez goes on, declaring, “Things cannot be known objectively; they must be known subjectively.” That is another leftist article of faith, but one that millions of successful mathematicians around the world have disproven.

Teaching math won’t be any easier if we never mention Pythagoras to “minority” students or come up with some new way of expressing the ratio we now call pi.

But teaching it will be harder if we gum up the tried and true mathematics curriculum with trendy political notions like “whiteness.”

 

 

 

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