John McWhorter on anti-racist math

March 1, 2021 • 1:15 pm

John McWhorter has got hold of a newish education project—a curriculum guide for antiracist math instruction called “A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction: Dismantling Racism in Mathematics”—and he’s furious about it. But “furious” in a McWhorterian way means that he completely takes the “curriculum” apart in a calm and elegant fashion.

A week ago I had prepared a draft post on this handbook, based on pages that deal not with mathematics, but how math is supposedly used to buttress white supremacy, as in the page below.  As McWhorter says in his new essay on Substack, the pamphlet in fact says very little about how to actually teach kids of any ethnicity math, and a lot about how to “decolonize” mathematics. If you don’t believe me, go to the bottom of this post (or to the first link above) and download the pamphlet for yourself.

Here’s one of many examples that will curl the soles of your shoes: an assertion that “showing your work” in math class is an example of white supremacy. As you’ll know if you’ve either learned or taught math, showing your work is essential in correcting errors of thinking and demonstrating how you solved a problem. But your implicit bias is showing, for that idea clearly evinces anti-black racism:

McWhorter’s analysis of this pamphlet is a joy to read if you abhor metastasizing wokeness. It’s free at his site (but subscribe if you keep reading him), and you can read it by clicking on the screenshot below:

A couple of quotes:

. . . this lovely pamphlet is teaching us that it is racist to expect black kids to master the precision of math. To wit – its message, penned by people who consider themselves some of the most morally advanced souls in the history of the human species, is one that Strom Thurmond would have happily taken a swig of whiskey to.

I wish I had written those sentences. McWhorter goes on (his emphasis):

. . . one idea in this fascicle is that black students learn how math has hurt people (i.e. black ones). But it’s no slam dunk that little kids need to be taught this. Wouldn’t this affect a child’s attitude towards mastering the skills? Or – the burden is upon the authors here to explain just why it would not. Sure, teachers imparting this lesson would show that they know racism exists; they will thus Reckon With Racism as we are told they must. But what might the impact of that lesson be on children who haven’t even reached puberty?

More to the point is that this entire document is focused on an idea that making black kids be precise is immoral.

McWhorter disposes of several objections to his objections, and ends by reiterating his idea that antiracism is a religion:

Many will dislike the general flavor of it but, amidst so much we all have to pay attention to, may question just what we must object to specifically about Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction.

There are two things. Racism and religion. Just those.

As in, first it is racism propounded as antiracism. Black kids shouldn’t expected to master the precision of math and should be celebrated for talking around it, gamely approximating its answers and saying why it can be dangerous? This is bigotry right out of Reconstruction, Tulsa, Selma, and Charlottesville.

Second, it is not science but scripture. It claims to be about teaching math while founded on shielding students from the requirement to actually do it. This is unempirical. It does so with an implication that only a moral transgressor numb to some larger point would question the contradiction. This is, as such, a religious document, telling you to accept that Jesus walked on water.

Humans may grievously sacrifice the 9-year-old, the virgin, or the widow upon the pyre in worship of a God. Too, humans may sacrifice the black kid from the work of mastering the gift of math, in favor of showing that they are enlightened enough to understand that her life may be affected by racism and that therefore she should be shielded from anything that is a genuine challenge.

This is not pedagogy; it is preaching.

And in this country, religious propositions have no place in the public square.

Besides the pamphlet over at Equitablemath.org, which is embedded at the bottom and can be read or downloaded using the arrows, you can read about the whole project. And if you go to the “acknowledgments” section of that page, you’ll see this (note the arrow at the bottom). Thanks a lot, Bill and Melinda! Imagine how much Wokeness can be bought with the Gates’s billions!

 

Click to access 1_STRIDE1.pdf

81 thoughts on “John McWhorter on anti-racist math

  1. What are black people going to do after they’ve been denied a math education ?

    The males can go and play basketball in the girls’ league, but what about the females?

    1. It won’t matter what black people are going to do because white people will also be denied a math education too. So everybody will be equally miserable.

      1. Don’t go into a building, fly in an airplane, or take medicine if overseen by this entire generation!

    2. They can always read the famous rape manual: “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica” by Newton. Calling that a ‘rape manual’ dates back a few decades, nothing new under the sun.

  2. Good gracious, the Gates funded this.

    I would note then that Math for America did not fund this – James Simons’ foundation – a genuine mathematician, who did more than solve one part of the pancake problem, who knows why good mathematicians who studied the subject for at least four years are interested in careers that do not include teaching in the United States public education system.

  3. The kind of flawed logic that this math curriculum uses indeed will do far more harm than good. It doesn’t actually address the real problems of racism while also failing to educate in math. And it’s just more ammunition for the conservatives about how crazy and stupid the liberals are.

  4. I despair… Incidentally, the guide calls itself “Stride 1” – is using “Step” a sign of white supremacy now?

          1. You’re right, I should just confess to being a math Nazi who believes in right=white answers and cancel myself.

  5. I’m commenting as a retired mathematician.

    When we ask students to show there work, that is for the benefit of the student. It is not for the benefit of the teacher.

    I agree with McWhorter, that this “anti-racist math” seems very racist. There’s an implication that black students cannot do math, and we need to water it down for them.

    1. Here’s a quote that they could add to the pamphlet:

      ‘in reason [blacks are] much inferior to [whites], as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid.”
      –Thomas Jefferson

        1. Check out a bean field and you probably won’t find a Pythagorean…. “QED” as the white supremacists are (mostly) ill-equipped to say…

          Suddenly, Pythagoras came to a stop. A vast bean field stretched before him. He stood frozen, uncertain what to do. His eyes focused on a single bean dangling inches from his papyrus- covered feet. So true was he to his ideals that, even at the risk of losing his own life, he was unwilling to trample upon even a single bean. Staring down upon that vibrant bean, the sun low in the sky, he imagined it to be blossoming into a divine ripeness before him. And as he stood there, hesitating, contemplating his next move, his pursuers caught up with him. They lifted their weapons, and bringing the knifes down hard, spilled Pythagoras’ blood on the plants – ending his life for the sake of a bean, and for the deep wisdom immersed in that diminutive cosmic object.

          https://philosophynow.org/issues/78/The_Death_of_Pythagoras

    2. I’m not a mathematician, although my BSc is in maths but, to me maths is the working out. For example, Euler’s identity is an interesting curiosity, but the way it is derived is IMO some of the most profound and beautiful maths there is. If a student sees a question in an exam “find the roots of this quadratic”, it’s not because the examiner wants to know the that the student knows the roots of the quadratic, it’s because the examiner wants to know that the student can apply maths to find them.

      So I agree: if you think asking black people to show their workings is racist, you think black people can’t do maths. And that definitely is racist.

  6. McWhorter’s children go to NYC public schools. Here is its school chancellor:

    “Incoming schools Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter has made it her mission to racially revamp the employment rolls as she moved up the ranks of the Department of Education — often at the expense of white and Jewish educators, critics charge.

    Porter once boasted about her quotas……….”

    https://nypost.com/2021/02/27/new-nyc-schools-chancellor-meisha-ross-porter-marginalized-older-white-women-suit/

  7. If there are Black, white, Hispanic, and Asian kids in the same math classroom, will the teacher water down the standards for all of the kids, or just for the blacks and Hispanics?

    Also, Asians tend to do better as a group on maths than any other racial group, so what is the explanation for that from the mush-brained Woke? That Asians are better as white supremacy than…whites?

    1. Indeed. First, my bona fides. My wife is Chinese-born and as a result I have had much contact with the Chinese, both in America and in China. I also have close relationships with Indians. I can tell you that I’ve witnessed the Chinese and Indians laughing behind the backs of Americans about how dumb we are in math in general and simple arithmetic in particular.
      Another comment regarding the Hispanics but it applies to Black students, too. I think the authors of this fascicle need to watch/re-watch the movie Stand and Deliver.

    2. It’s taught this way for all kids to get the “whiteness” out of math. As if math isn’t hard enough.

      1. I have to say I find that characterisation of the Gates and their philanthropy grossly unfair. I follow the Gates quite closely and have never seen a hint of this sort of counter-rational wokeism. Just on their own they are the most generous philanthropists of all time. In combination with their close friend and associate Warren Buffet, they have given over $70 billion dollars to help make the world a better, more equitable and safer place. That’s going on for $250 for every person in the US. If all super-rich individuals were similarly altruistic, many of the world’s biggest problems and inequalities would quickly improve.

    1. I hazard the guess that “Bill and Melinda” do not personally look into the details of every project.

    1. It looks like a sort of “math linguistics”. Seems perfectly fine to study how people do math in culturally different ways.

  8. Shaking my head at the conclusions jumped to by people who have never tried to teach 6-8th-grade math! (Reminds me of listening to advice from a reality star on treatments for COVID-19!I haven’t either, just graduated in 1961 in the top 10% of my class with a math major and physic minor at Iowa State Teachers College and taught only 9-12th grades in a monoculture! McWhorter is very good at expecting people who didn’t choose well-educated, affluent parents to achieve as he did without any extra understanding. Did you even read what the program is all about? It is about fixing a problem so everybody has a chance. Too many schools have taught kids that they’re dumb and hate school before given half a chance! Just a little understanding, please!

    https://equitablemath.org/faq/

    1. I just had an epiphany : I’m one of those people who knows what’s good for the black !

      Except… Wait a minute ! What I think is good for them is what I want for myself, for the kids I know, for my nephew… Oh, wait a minute, that one is black too, I just don’t think of him that way 😀

      I want for my nephew what I’d want for him were he white. I want real math for him like I want a measles vaccine for him.

    2. I had earlier looked at much of this (in the link), in my perusal of the subject. There is no content there other then several expandable tabs that assure the reader that here is the hottest thing since sliced bread. But I’m sorry to say it, but no, I don’t see what this product is about if they don’t show me.

    3. You are on a bridge over an ocean inlet in a thunderstorm. Howling winds shake your car. Do you want the bridge to have been built by students who:

      – Were not graded (i.e. “tracked”) by a teacher because it is racist to assume the teacher “knows what’s right” (Why not let small children decide what’s right, after all. And then build the bridge. That you are now on.)

      – Had to meet expectations, because this creates a meritocracy. Why not be on a bridge built by people who had to meet no expectations!!

      – Had to pass standardized tests

      – Were expected to know mathematical equations vs. having “conceptual ideas” about math

      Same when you are in an airplane, or having heart surgery, or even driving your own car down the road, engineered by students who were not subject to the evil, “white supremacist” concept of accuracy over speaking their own truth.

      The truth is, I am almost certain, you would have absolutely none of this, and would run to the nearest lawyer if you found yourself in such a position.

  9. I teach physics to grade 7 kids and I taught math. I have plupils of different backgrounds, including pupils who would be labeled black, so…

    I give them the food and their intelligence grows. They just need classes and explanations. Well, we’re colleagues, so, my experience does not beat yours, but I have that experience.

    My heart sinks at the idea of not giving the “black” ones the same education I give the others.

    Ruth, you’re a colleague, you’ve taught, you teach, I respect you, I find what you wrote intriguing, can you please elaborate ?

    1. “i give them the food and their intelligence grows” nails it! I had written a long ( and brilliant🤓) comment about this (and Ruth’s comment) based on my years of teaching grade 8 through first year college Calculus, and it evaporated into thin air…Maybe I’ll have the energy later..

      1. OK, trying again. Not black kids, but girls in Math. I had two very bright little grade 9 blonde (this is important because of all the dumb blonde jokes and having been a real blonde in my yoof) girls whom I was trying to convince to enter the annual U. Of Waterloo
        Math contest, which I was administering. They said, “oh, no, the Asian boys will win.” I said “The Asian boys will probably do well but so will you!” After much brow-beating by me, they signed up, took the test, and came in first in our school, and our school was first in Ontario that year. Let’s hear it for smart blondes🥳 The girls were also often at the top in my programming classes, once they got past the make video-game stereotyping. This damn well better not disappear…

  10. “Powerhoarding” — Damn lucky thing I didn’t know THAT word in grade school when the nuns were patrolling the aisles with yardsticks checking our work during math class.

    “Sister, I do believe you’re powerhoarding.WHACK! Woulda been like Belushi and Aykroyd in Blues Brothers.

    1. @Ken, having “known” you for many years on WEIT, I find it hard to picture the younger you being brow-beaten by the Penguins🤓

  11. Maybe (I hope) in a decade or so we can look back and laugh at the time ostensibly well-meaning liberals became one of the chief vectors for promulgating racism.

    1. There’s a cool Medawar quote – about clinical trials as a gold standard for medicine – in which the alternative medicines are the product of a “conspiracy of good will.”

      Source : p. 87, Singh and Edzard, Trick or Treatment, 2008, W. W. Norton

    2. That is the best case scenario, buddy. I’m just waiting for that train to hit my country and trying to brace myself.

  12. This is just terribly depressing. I’m not good at feeling optimistic about the future at the best of times, and this just makes me feel like I’m living in a madhouse.

  13. The grade school bully has switched to the new ways of bullying. He still doesn’t like math, but now he dubs it oppression and racist.

  14. It’s not just teaching math to the black that is racist, it is also teaching them archetypal white culture like Pushkin or Dumas…

    1. Or to read using the Roman alphabet….

      (Oops, my last comment here in case I violate Da Roolz – apologies!)

  15. I found the following phrase used a couple of times-
    “math is taught in a linear fashion and skills are taught sequentially, without consideration of prerequisite knowledge”

    Sequential teaching of skills is done to provide prerequisite knowledge for more advanced work.

    “Flipped learning, where students teach concepts to other students.” is to be encouraged, but we are warned that “Another common participation structure is pairing students as helper and helpee. This reinforces paternalism and other power structures”

    I think what they are trying to dismantle are the advantages of modern civilization, which rely heavily on people showing their work and getting the right answer.
    I do not want to fly on an aircraft designed by someone taught in this manner.

    1. One thing I have disliked about Canadian high schools vs. US ones is that only Grade 12 marks count towards university admissions,so a lot of kids fool around until Grade 12 and haven’t necessarily acquired strong enough Math skills along the way. They start Calculus and their skills with fractions can be weak!

      Hallelujah – my comment “stuck”!

  16. It’s hard for me to believe Bill Gates would actually go along with this. There are a lot of people that are surprised at this too. My guess is that his foundation funded it without knowing exactly what the organization would do with the money. After all, “fighting racism in math” might have just been rejiggering word problems to be less dominated by “white scenarios”. It will be interesting to see if he responds to all the criticism.

    1. I use Excel to calculate, among other things, my taxable income. If MS software engineers have the same cavalier approach to precision and accuracy as Equitable Maths, I could be in trouble with the Inland Revenue Department.

      As for students making cartoons to explain their mathematical thinking – what an extraordinarily inefficient use of limited curriculum time!

  17. The only thing we can be certain about, other than that 1 + 1 = 2 (or does it?) is that the attempted politicization of maths, and the blindness to the fact that certain racial groups reliably perform better than us “whites”, is that it is doomed.
    Maths teachers teach a very complex set of skills relying entirely on abstract thought, sometimes converted into practical results – to take just one example, the equations relating to the path of a thrown ball. It is very difficult, needs constant practice, and requires specialist teachers to convey its meaning and methods. These include, vitally, showing your working, for without this you cannot follow the procedures, or visualise how the numbers come together.
    I speak as a former maths teacher: and let me just say that ideology will never take over this skill: the teachers will simply refuse to reform their syllabus and teaching methods. And no one else can teach it.
    The quadratic formula and its derivation Woke Warriors? Thought not.

  18. God knows what is going through the heads of these ‘educators’ when they make up this crap, but I struggle to express my disdain for it without falling foul of ‘da rules’. Of course, it’s misguided, counterprodutive and it ultimately benefits no-one. Worse still, it is grossly offensive and insulting – how dare they demonstrate such low expectations for these students?

    The aim: “Prepare Students of Color to Close The Gap in Access to Stem”, is a noble goal. But it will not be closed by ‘centering ethnomathematics’ – whatever that means. As a software engineer who works among, and recruits mathematicians, I can confirm we rarely seek candidates looking to reclaim their ‘mathematical ancestry’. We’d rather they are able to select the right model for the problem and be able to articulate it to others.

    This raises the question of where the committment to ‘ethnomathematics’ might end. Some of you may remember this story in Nature:
    https://www.nature.com/news/2004/040816/full/040816-10.html
    It concerns the Pirahã tribe in the Amazonian rain forest; a hunter-gatherer group of around 200 people, with a very basic counting system. Their words for numbers amount to: ‘one’, ‘two’ and ‘many’.

    One wonders whether this number system should be ‘centered’ as an an example of ‘ethnomathematics’, and if so, what benefits it might offer over the tyrany of western mathematics that keeps so many of us oppressed.

  19. The only thing we can be certain about, other than that 1 + 1 = 2 (or does it?) is that the attempted politicization of maths, and the blindness to the fact that certain racial groups reliably perform better than us “whites”, is that it is doomed.
    Maths teachers teach a very complex set of skills relying entirely on abstract thought, sometimes converted into practical results – to take just one example, the equations relating to the path of a thrown ball. It is very difficult, needs constant practice, and requires specialist teachers to convey its meaning and methods. These include, vitally, showing your working, for without this you cannot follow the procedures, or visualise how the numbers come together.
    I speak as a former maths teacher: and let me just say that ideology will never take over this skill: the teachers will simply refuse to reform their syllabus and teaching methods. And no one else can teach it.
    The quadratic formula and it’s derivation Woke Warriors? Thought not.

  20. i’m very happy the professor keeps a tab on these things and brings them to my/our attention because I think they’re quite important. Note – I have no kids and thus am not invested in the future – but it is interesting nevertheless. I’m also crap at math.

    And so much of this wokemania feels like a train I love (classic liberalism) has veered seriously off the tracks into crazytown sometimes. This math kerfuffle is the poster child of that.
    Exhaustedly yours in NYC,
    D.A.
    https://whyevolutionistrue.com/2020/06/10/photos-of-readers-93/

    1. The good education of all kids is really in everyone’s best interest, whether their our personal kids or not.

  21. “The concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false, and teaching it is even much less so. Upholding the idea that there are always right and wrong answers perpetuate objectivity as well as fear of open conflict.”
    (“A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction”, p. 65)

    Here’s a splendid short movie about “alternative math”:

    1. Ms Wells is wrong: 2000+2000 = 20002000. I wouldn’t mind being fired for a cool 20 million bucks!

  22. This is the type of racist, backward Lysenokism being pushed over at FreeThougthBlogs, these days.

  23. Gah – the show your work thing is terrible. I was a non-traditional (read older) college student due to having fallen into a pretty awesome job track for a number of years that made leaving the work force to pursue school seem less than appealing – until I hit that glass ceiling on income. Additionally, growing up I’d always been a ‘book person’, not a ‘math person’ (and I believed these were mutually exclusive fields and that I was ‘not good’ at math. In community college, I took my first college maths. It was hard, I wanted my adding machine, not a calculator. But I was also ambitious and wanted to learn. So I worked hard, spent many, many hours in the tutoring center, and always showed my work. Turns out, math is a learned skill, and with sufficient effort, one can become adept, whether or not they are a ‘book person’. As I took upper level classes one thing remained constant – I might have had to work harder than some of my classmates, often young guys who would whiz through the tests and assignments, sloppily but with natural talent, but I did better in the end. Because I showed my damn work and was able to catch my mistakes and correct them. They might have gotten to leave the exams sooner, but I scored higher, and understood the content.

  24. “Professional development: Practise with math colleagues how to answer mathematical problems without using words or numbers”
    Huh??
    No numbers? oookkkaaayy
    No words? sign language, draw pictures??
    Utter madness.

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