Math as ideology: the Seattle debacle

September 30, 2020 • 12:45 pm

I guess I’ll have to post twice on a race-related topic today, though I’m trying to avoid too much of this kind of stuff. Yet people keep sending me links to overly Woke initiatives, and this one was too good to pass up. It’s just one example of how every academic subject is being racialized these days. It’s certainly happening to evolutionary biology, but you’d think that math would be immune to identity politics.

Think again. The Seattle Public School system is planning an initiative that will fuse math education with Critical Race Theory from kindergarten through high school, effectively turning math class into Ethnic Studies class. (This initiative apparently comes from a branch of scholarship called “ethnomathematics.”)  If you think I’m exaggerating, have a look at the official math standards framework (below) and the two articles below that.

The new curriculum;


The first piece is from Education Week, and the second from the right-wing site I’ll quote from both, but mainly from the first one, and you can read them by clicking on the screenshots.

From the first article:

The Seattle school district is planning to infuse all K-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, a controversial move that puts the district at the forefront of a movement to “rehumanize” math.

The district’s proposed framework outlines strands of discussion that teachers should incorporate into their classes. One leads students into exploring math’s roots “in the ancient histories of people and empires of color.” Another asks how math and science have been used to oppress and marginalize people of color, and who holds power in a math classroom.

Another theme focuses on resistance and liberation, encouraging students to recognize the mathematical practices and contributions of their own communities, and looking at how math has been used to free people from oppression.

Seattle’s proposals land as schools all over the country are discussing the role ethnic studies should play in their curricula. In most places, if schools offer ethnic studies at all, it’s usually in a stand-alone course in high school. But increasingly, schools and districts are starting to sprinkle ethnic studies across the K-12 spectrum. Seattle is taking a highly unusual approach by weaving the field’s multicultural and political questions not just through all grade levels, but into all subjects.

Yes, that’s right: all subjects. You can’t be free from Critical Theory in any class: art, music, math, physics, and so on. And it’s clear that it is Critical Theory that is being taught if you read the standards at the first link and what the educators say about the program in the article:

“Seattle is definitely on the forefront with this,” said Robert Q. Berry III, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “What they’re doing follows the line of work we hope we can move forward as we think about the history of math and who contributes to that, and also about deepening students’ connection with identity and agency.”

. . . More recently, some scholars, most prominently Rochelle Gutiérrez at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign, have begun advocating for a “rehumanizing” of mathematics, which places dynamics such as race and oppression at the center of conversations about math and culture.

That is, the class will learn that math has been a tool of the oppressor (i.e., white people) against the oppressed (i.e., people of color).  And although the initiative is supposed to recruit more minority students into studying math, or at least interest them in math, there’s a contradiction, for the program replaces math education with cultural education.  And by so doing, it not only reduces the stuff available to learn in math, but also tries to eliminate the very idea that minority students aren’t doing that well in math:

Contrast this (both from the Education Week article):

When too many black and Latino students see no place for themselves in math and science, Castro-Gill said, it’s important to be explicit about how their own cultures contribute to math and how they can use it to make their communities, and the world, better.

with this:

“Math education has been very focused on access and closing the achievement gap, around grit and growth mindset. Those ideas are centered around individuals, and ways of thinking they need to adopt. We haven’t focused enough on identity or systems of power,” Gutiérrez said.

“Students should be able to see themselves in the curriculum, recognize math as a tool for making their lives better, and question what math is, and the purpose of math,” she said.

See yourself in the curriculum? That isn’t on for math. But notice that they are subtly replacing achievement in math (that is, learning the stuff) with “seeing yourself in the curriculum.” “Closing the achievement gap”, well, that is overrated.‘s Robby Soave excerpts from the standards:

But having read over the proposed framework, I have to say that it does seem fairly terrible. It’s chock full of social justice jargon that sounds smart but is actually vapid. What does it mean to decode mathematical “beauty” or “identify how the development of mathematics has been erased from learning in school?” (Has it been erased? That seems like a problem for history class.) The guidance says it will “re-humanize mathematics through experiential learning” and facilitate learning “independently and interdependently.” That’s a fancy way of saying almost nothing at all.

The guidance also includes some extremely political, simplistic talking points that might be popular among activist academics but are in reality somewhat dubious. This is verbatim from the proposal: Students will be able to “identify the inherent inequities of the standardized testing system used to oppress and marginalize people and communities of color,” “explain how math has been used to exploit natural resources,” and “explain how math dictates economic oppression.” Each of these statements are debatable, but they are not being presented as such. It would be one thing to hold a class discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of standardized testing, but what’s happening here is that students are being trained to reject standardized testing due to its “inherent inequity,” which is asserted as some kind of proven fact.

Say what you will about, the assertions in the second paragraph are accurate (I’ve checked).

But I’ve said enough. This initiative is ludicrous, and is explicitly designed to propagandize students with Critical Theory beginning in kindergarten.

What’s sad is that some educators actually think this is a good idea.  And perhaps people really don’t care how much math people learn, and but want to replace learning math with learning about systems of oppression. But I don’t think that’s what parents want.

Surely math education can be improved. As Talking Barbie says, “Math is HARD”, and ways to get kids to learn math can always be scrutinized and presumably improved. You may not like math, for it’s one of those subjects that many people hate, but you need to be exposed to it, both for practical reasons and because it’s one of the great achievements of the human mind.

So here are two questions that the educators should answer, but haven’t:

1.) Does this kind of education actually teach kids more math than the standard methods? Where are the relevant data? Or don’t people care if the answer to this question is “no”?

2.) Do kids do better when they see their own ethnic group infused into the curriculum? (This is sort of a restatement of question #1.)

If the answer to both questions is “yes”, I’m still not completely down with this, because while it may teach more math—something I highly doubt given that math learning is replaced with Critical Theory—it still propagandizes students with a woke ideology beginning in kindergarten.  Increasingly, and beginning at younger and younger ages, students are being told what to think about politics.

As a Jesuit member of the Church of Right Thinking might say, “Give me the math student for the first twelve years, and I’ll give you the Woke Adult.”

h/t: Laurance

74 thoughts on “Math as ideology: the Seattle debacle

  1. We know for a fact that Trump will fight this critical race theory thing hard. And we know for a fact that Biden will not fight it at all but rather support more of it.

    The phrase “caught between a rock and a hard place” comes to mind.

    I personally would still vote for Biden if I were an American citizen but I fear this issue may help me win me $100 from Ken Kukec that I really don’t want to win.

    1. “…we know for a fact…” Tell us more about the evidence for this.

      Does Trump know the 1st thing about critical race theory or mathematics? He’s read all these books, you say? Who would have suspected! I should have asked him for help with my algebraic topology.

      This utter nonsense which Jerry is alerting us about needs to be opposed wherever the soft-headed ‘can’t do so, oh! can’t teach either, so pretend to teach the teachers’ people appear, but it’s got virtually nothing to do with this election.

      1. “Tell us more about the evidence for this.”

        Google “Trump Whitehouse cancels critical race theory training at Whitehouse.”

        “Does Trump know the 1st thing about critical race theory or mathematics?”

        He called critical race theory “racist” last night. That’s the first thing to know about it.

        “He’s read all these books, you say?”

        No I didn’t say anything of the sort.

        1. “…we know for a fact that Biden will not fight it”

          Your evidence seems to be evidence for something entirely different.

          1. I just now noticed you used “..we know for a fact..” twice, so I should have retained what I read better than I did.

          2. I think it’s pretty clear that Biden has bought critical race theory wholesale due to either intimidation tactics or ignorance. Probably a bit of both. If you hold any hope that he will curtail it in any way I am at a loss as to where you acquired such faith.

            He can’t even speak truthfully about BLM or Antifa. He’s either scared to death or he drank the Kool aid.

    2. Well fortunately, we also know for a fact that primary and secondary education standards in the U.S. are set by the state, so not up to either one of them. So rest easy, and not-vote with a clear conscience as it pertains to math education.

      1. This atheist is praying that your confidence is warranted. If half the states, or at least the most populated states, Democratic states, continue with their full court press of critical race theory in K-12, and the executive branch also supports it in the Whitehouse, I won’t be resting easy.

        1. I agree that it’s not a good idea for the states to do this, and I agree it’s going to be the more liberal states that are vulnerable to this political movement. However, the person in the WH is going to make very little difference to it.

  2. This is worrisome, to put it mildly. We must brace ourselves a generation or maybe several generations of imbeciles who cannot count beyond 1, 2, and many. I had thought that Glenn Loury was exaggerating a bit when he and McWhorter were recently discussing “black” physics, that is, the push for physics to go light on maths and support other ways of knowing. He said there’s a push for similar ideological usurpation afoot in Econ.

    1. Yep. If any minority is under-represented in achievement at physics, then the fault is with physics. So we need to throw out all the physics and replace it with Critical Race Theory. Then we’ll have equity.

      After all, everyone can do autoethnography about their lived experience.

      1. And, of course, Critical Theory will do very well at keeping the lights on, keeping the water fresh, clean, and flowing, and keeping food growing and being shipped from place to place. To say nothing of keeping the sorts of “academics” behind Critical Theory able to make a living by writing papers about angels and heads of pins.

    1. Yup, exactly. That worked out well for us, less so the ideologues who promulgated the nonsense. Maybe that’s the light at the end of the tunnel?

    2. Well, one difference comes to mind… Jewish maths and Jewish physics, once they fled/escaped to the US, helped defeat the nazis. This “ethnomathmatics”will most likely be self-defeating.

      One can only hope that black and Hispanic maths professors and mathematicians, physics professors and physicists, infuriated at the notion that their race/ethnic groups are somehow just naturally less mathematically capable as a group, will rise up and fight this coming tidal wave of idiocy.

  3. “… also tries to eliminate the very idea that minority students aren’t doing that well in math”

    I’m going to take a wild stab that Chinese Americans (and plenty of other minorities) are doing just fine at math.

    Which rather torpedoes Critical Race Theory.

    1. The names of the six Canadian citizens who recently won 6 medals (3 gold) in the International Math Olympiad are the following:

      Thomas Guo ,Michael Li ,Eric Shen ,Zixiang Zhou ,David Tang ,Edgar Wang .

      1. Evidently Canadian maths discriminates not only against all non-Chinese, but also against all females. Time to revise the maths curriculum to show how maths is used in the systemic oppression of women. That’ll improve their performance.

        1. I convinced two of my (blonde) grade 9 girls to enter the Waterloo Math Contest. They protested that it was always the Asian boys who won. Guess what? My girls came in first in our school ( which had high provincial rankings). Let’s hear it for not-so-dumb blondes🎉 Nothing against my Asian boys…

  4. I would have no problem with Maths teachers briefly acknowledging the historical roots of some concepts as they introduce them, such as algebra coming from Persian al-jabr (“the restoring of broken parts”), algorithm being derived from a Latinized form of the name of a 9th-century Persian mathematician (a bit of a Persian theme here…) etc. Anything beyond that seems unnecessary in a Maths class, though.

    1. Yes, and to add a bit re “algorithm”:

      ‘His name is sometimes written al-Khuwarizmi; a more complete version, with slightly different Roman alphabet spelling is Abu Ja’far Mohammed ibn Muˆsˆa al-Khowˆarizm. An influential book of his dating from about 825 AD is entitled Kitab al-jabr wa’l-muqabala. The word algebra is derived from the obvious one of those Arabic words.’

    2. That said, the new Maths curriculum will doubtless include something along the lines of “Pythagoras was a white, patriarchal, cis-gendered, heteronormative dude who died because he had a fear of beans, despite being vegetarian – his only redeeming feature”.

      1. I seem to recall that not too long before that, pretty much the entire population of what’s now UK was a long ways from white in skin pigmentation. They might include what you say, and it might be far from true.

      2. I understood that he was against beans (possibly Fava beans specifically) because of Favism, a fairly nasty, often Mediterranean sex-linked genetic disorder causing Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency which results in haemolytic anaemia.

        Another theory is that “thou shalt not eat beans” was a euphemism advising abstinence from sexual activity or some particular variant thereof.

        Shows I was listening in my Biochemistry classes in the 1970’s!!!!

        Interestingly, many of the people suffering from Favism are NOT white (some Afro-Americans for example, Semitic groups, South Chinese).

        Some US soldiers in Korea went down with favism/haemolytic-anaemia after treatment with anti-malarials.

  5. I have zero problem teaching where the various techniques originated, but (a) after the kids learn to work the problems, and (b) I kinda thought we already did that.

    See yourself in the curriculum? That isn’t on for math.

    It’s a complete reversal of classic liberalism, isn’t it? We used to want to teach our kids that it’s not all about them, that lots of other people contributed to make our society, our sciences, etc. too. But now each class must explain to the students how the subject is all about them.

    looking at how math has been used to free people from oppression.

    I can teach this in one easy lesson: learn how to do it.

    “rehumanizing” of mathematics, which places dynamics such as race and oppression at the center of conversations about math and culture.

    Can’t wait for the Probability and Statistics unit. Finally, the true story of white European inveterate gambling addicts inventing techniques to bilk their friends at games of chance can be told!

  6. This is particularly absurd because math is one thing that is not only universal, but potentially trans-universal (this is not meant to be related to trans-gender or related terms). As a mathematician whose name I can’t recall said, we can imagine parts of a multiverse in which the constants and some of the “laws” of nature are different than they are here, but we literally cannot imagine a universe in which there is a highest prime number. It cannot exist.

    Even if The Party says 2 + 2 = 5, it just doesn’t, unless you change the meaning of 2 and/or + and/or = and/or 5.

    1. That’s the point. Apparently, white culture has appropriated algebra from the Arabs in service of our dominant power structure.


      1. Ramachandran claims that the Arabs appropriated “Arabic” numerals from the Indians: he calls them Indian numerals.

        Roman numerals are a disaster for mathematical calculation.

        I don’t even know what Greek numerals looked like.

        Greek letters penetrated “Western” physics as mathematical symbols, but they had been pinched in their turn from the Phoenicians (who presumably had brought them from Asia, or heaven forbid, actually invented them in the first place).

          1. The Trader Joe’s challenge alerted the world to “othering”. Now here, we have “manying”… nannying…oops – auto correct- mannying….


          2. I believe that it was in India around 900 or 1000 years ago that “Arabic” numerals were appropriated from India by Arabs during their long colonization of India.

            It was in India, I believe, that zero as a Computational, not just representational, entity was invented. Also around 1100 years ago….

          3. It was actually the Babylonians who first used zero for computation but their invention didn’t stick because their number system was lost. It did indeed get invented independently in India and that time it “stuck” as they passed the idea down to the Arabs who then passed it on to Europeans and now, after all this time, some in America are deeply confused and rather upset about it.

    2. Wikipedia says algebra goes back to ancient Babylon, which would place it at something like a thousand or more B.C.

      This sort of claim of western expropriation does just as much disservice to history as it does to math. The European colonialist governments the wokes love to hate didn’t exist for a thousand or more years after Babylon had fallen. They simply never overlapped such that one could steal anything from the other. It’s sort of like claiming the USA stole property and ideas belonging to China’s Song Dynasty.

    3. I kind of think of it as one of those facts that nobody knows that everybody knows. It’s like the fact that nobody knows that the Double Helix was partly discovered by Rosalind Franklin or that Alfred Russell Wallace independently thought of evolution.

      These are little known facts that have been rehearsed so frequently by people trying to disrupt our complacency that pretty much everybody knows them – well everybody that cares about the subject matter.

  7. Having watched my two boys go through 5-8 grades I can say that I think the math curriculum in America is inexcusable. It does create, indirectly, inequality but not for the reasons the Seattle School system suggestions.

    There is the wrongheaded idea of making Common Core non-intuitive with regards to esoteric fields, like ‘mathematical inequalities (), rounding, precision and obtuse wording of algebra problems, to name a few.

    Americans are producing a larger rift between those kids who have parents who can help their kids and those who get no or little help from their parents. It’s a cycle that is going to make things worse in our country long before it gets better.

    1. Do your children suffer from a highly prescribed curriculum where every single thing has a time limit, as in the teacher shall teach this concept for 3 minutes, 45 seconds. Students will have 2 minutes 30 seconds to answer the equation. Teacher will have 1 minute 15 seconds to address errors…an so on? This is a real thing. I’ve had the joy of sitting through several months of this sort of crap in a 4th grade classroom. Add to the strict time frames, students are taught several ways to solve an equation, which sounds good on the face of it, except again, time limits, little time to assist struggling kids, often horribly convoluted, unnecessary, and confusing methods that do little more than confuse the hell out of the kids, and no matter what, next day new lesson keep on truckin’. I found it particularly amusing/depressing when a batch of equations required three ways to solve each one and accidentally introduced negative numbers which confused both students and teacher. I don’t recall any kids in my grade school crying in math class but this curriculum caused so much stress that it was an almost daily occurrence. The teacher didn’t make it much better and she is as woke as they come. There’s no better way to make kids hate and fear math. Schools actually PAY for this curriculum and then get the pleasure of visits from the jerks who designed it so they can be told how bad they are at implementing it.

    2. It will be interesting to see how the pandemic changes that (if at all), with it’s heavy reliance on “asynchronous learning” (i.e. go off and do it on your own).

      On the one hand, I can imagine that not having the teacher right there helping is going to hurt poor families a lot more than wealthy ones. On the other, I suspect these kids are going to develop study and work habits earlier and better than we ever did. The pandemic generation isn’t going to go to college and suddenly drop from A’s to F’s because of lack of time management skills, like lots of people from my generation did. They’ll have been doing much of their own time management for 2-10 years already when they get there!

        1. We shall see what the school says at the end of the semester, but right now, we aren’t getting any “parental reminders” to make kids do the work. I take that to mean the teachers are at least reasonably happy with the rate at which students complete their assignments.

          I would never have wanted it, and I’ll be glad for my own time management reasons when the kids go physically back (…I’m expecting September 2021). But having said that, I’m really impressed with my own kids’ ability to work independently even when the adults are not in the room and he’s got easy access to TV, toys, video games, etc. I think he’s going to come out of this year having practiced some good life skills he would not otherwise have used.

          1. That’s good news! Some kids will thrive on being independently responsible. I found that my Freshman college classmates who had the hardest time with time management were the ones who had gone to boarding schools with set study hall schedules etc. When given their freedom they were more apt to party than study. I had had a lot of freedom in HS, three younger brothers, and lots of friends wandering in and out of our house, so I had had to learn how to be disciplined with my time and usually had assignments done ahead of time. Wish I could say the same for myself now😬

  8. Jerry might remember this story: In 2004, I was asked to join a Critical Criminology Dept. to set up their Ethics and Critical Thinking curriculum. I said ‘Critical Criminology’? What’s that? “Oh, it’s criminology using a Marxist-Feminist model”. I said: “How does Evolutionary Biology fit into your model?” She literally waved her hand in my face and said: “Oh, none of us do that evolutionary stuff.”

    I have taught Critical Thinking for over two decades at numerous universities. I have watched Critical Theory move in like a memetic virus and infect the minds of entire Humanities Faculties.

    It was just a matter of time before the students of those professors would spread the ideological underpinnings throughout other areas of society.

    I am completely at a loss to explain how ironically ‘Critical Theory’ is titled and how little it has to do with actual Critical Thinking.

  9. As an opinion journalist, I’m very familiar with Reason magazine. I would not characterize it as “right-wing.” It’s libertarian–extremely so. That means that sometimes it takes positions that elements of the right embrace, and that sometimes it takes positions that elements of the left embrace.

    1. Exactly! How could Reason be confused with “right-wing”? They support abortion rights, legalization of marijuana and all other drugs, legalization of prostitution and sex work, LGBTQ rights, prison and policing reform including ending the militarization of police an an end to qualified immunity, an end to the prosecution of victimless crimes and mandatory minimum sentencing which disproportionately affect poor and minority groups, the freedom to immigrate and an end to border restrictions, and an end to military interventionism and the withdrawal of troops from overseas.

      1. Because everything that is not woke is now “right-wing.”

        And everything formerly right-wing is “alt-right” or “extremist.” Or just “racist.”

  10. The source of this craze is our schools of Ed, spellbound by thinkers like Professor of Education Rochelle Gutierrez (“On many levels, mathematics itself operates as Whiteness.”).

    At the risk of attempting psychoanalysis at a distance, I suspect that much of this comes from individuals who still smart from the shock to their little egos when they had trouble learning sums, multiplication, and division. What better way to get back at math than by charging it with that most heinous of all sins, “whiteness”? And what better way to exorcise the sin than by replacing actual math teaching in the schools by woke incantations?

  11. Where’s Jaime Escalante when we need him?!

    That was a man who didn’t think that being poor or a minority meant you needed lower maths standards to succeed! Grrrraaaaargh! This post has had me steaming since I read it. This adoption of wholesale racism of low expectations that these so-called anti-racists keep pushing just gets my blood boiling!

    Ok. I’m done. No more comments. It’s close enough to 5, time to relax and forget everything about Critical Racist Ideology…until tomorrow at least. ✌️

    1. See, that is the reaction I would expect many parents would have. The next school board meeting can be packed with angry shouting parents, wanting these people to teach their kids math so they can, you know, $%%$_$% survive out there.

  12. One way to improve mathematics education is to provide a salary that will keep someone with mathematics on their resume from leaving to make six figures at Google or Amazon for instance. Those are the kind of credentials that someone who can efficiently teach mathematics with clarity and depth will have. It matters if someone spent four years studying for a mathematics degree.

  13. Before I retired, I often went to NCTM Annual Meetings, at least when they were on the west coast. They were fun. Most of the attendees were math teachers and were amped up on learning new teaching techniques. The exhibits were also pretty interesting as many featured so-called manipulables which are things that demonstrate mathematical concepts that the kids can fool around with. I imagine that making them Woke will take all the fun out of them. Teachers will be spending their time learning about this stuff and whispering to each other about how best to keep one’s head down. Teaching these days is hard enough and now they have to deal with this? Many may seek alternative employment.

    1. NCTM meetings could be very fun and enlightening. I also went to a number of Math teachers’ conferences at Phillips Exeter Academy in years past. I hope they won’t succumb to this craziness.

  14. Whoever you are, you clearly haven’t read this site, or you’d know I already have answered your questions.
    Rude people like you, posting for the first time without having read either the rules or some of the posts, don’t belong here. Bye!

  15. A few months ago I contemplated in what area a K-12 prospective teacher might teach so as to be best insulated from wokeness. Math seemed to be the best choice. To woke school systems: good luck recruiting teachers, math or otherwise.

  16. Mr. Coyne, I’m respectfully requesting that you consider re-evaluating your assessment of Reason Magazine as “right-wing.” The magazine covers news and culture from a libertarian angle. You’ll find that they are against the criminalization of drug use (, in favor of legal gay marriage (, and oppose criminalization of abortion (

    It’s perhaps a curse on those who self-identify as libertarian that those on the right consider us left-wing, and those on the left consider us right-wing. But I argue that it is a distinct ideology (for lack of a better term), neither left nor right, but that’s a conversation for another time.

    1. It’s an indictment of the left-right paradigm for politics, really. I really wish we could ditch that from our lexicon, because it is not useful to a productive discourse.

  17. If math were a tool of oppression, wouldn’t it follow that one shouldn’t do math? Counterproductive.

    And where’s the other message that math can be a tool for self-empowerment, for escape from oppression?

    1. The message of escape from oppression is there too. From the linked pdf…

      How has math been used to
      resist and liberate people and
      communities of color from
      ● When has math been
      used historically to resist
      and liberate?
      ● How can we use data to
      resist and liberate?
      ● How can we use math to
      measure the impact of

      Of course the second bullet point will be problematic to teach because we’ve already learned
      ● Why/how does data-driven
      processes prevent liberation?

  18. How is maths ‘white’? The numerals , especially 0 are from the Indus river area It has travelled through modern day Iran, Oman, Yemen, Turkey. In addition algebra was given to the world by an Arab who was falsely imprisoned , eventually losing his site. This woke nonsense is alienating potential allies, and has now gone off the deep end into sheer silliness.

  19. I was hoping for more of an update on how Seattle is doing in 2020 on high school math. These articles and the Dreher column were a year ago in Fall 2019.

    A quick look at current web pages for the schools suggests that they still have math in their math classes, though Covid-19 has of course changed things up a bit. It doesn’t look to me like it is all “ethnomathematics”, probably just some added in here and there.

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