A bit more on the racism of math

March 2, 2021 • 1:15 pm

Yesterday I directed your attention to the new Gates-Foundation-funded booklet on how to “teach” mathematics in an anti-racist way. I put “teach mathematics” in quotes, because the book doesn’t tell you how to get kids to be proficient in doing math. Instead, it is a Trojan Horse to sneak Critical Race Theory into the classroom, and in fact is detrimental to teaching math by urging the elimination of practices, like having students show their work, that help foster math proficiency. I urge you to look over the pamphlet yourself to see how insidious and invidious it is (click on the screenshot; access and a pdf are free):

Over at Bari Weiss’s Substack site, “Common sense,” Bari’s given the stage to Princeton math professor Segiu Klainerman to write a guest post, which you can read by clicking below (remember to subscribe to Weiss’s site if you like her writing).

Actually, the picture above of a student raising her hand shows what the pamphlet sees as a paternalistic (read: racist) classroom behavior, for reasons delineated on page 75 of the booklet:

Klainerman, in fact, found math, and its universality among cultures, as a way to escape the totalitarianism of his native Romania, and is appalled at any notion that different cultures or races have different styles of learning or doing math:

The woke ideology, on the other hand, treats both science and mathematics as social constructs and condemns the way they are practiced, in research and teaching, as manifestations of white supremacy, euro-centrism, and post-colonialism.

Take for example the recent educational program called “a pathway to equitable math instruction.” The program is backed financially by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; it counts among its partners the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley, the California Math project, the Association of California School Administrators, and the Los Angeles County Office of Education, among others; and it was recently sent to Oregon teachers by the state’s Department of Education.

The program argues that “white supremacy culture shows up in the classroom when the focus is on getting the ‘right’ answer” or when students are required to show their work, while stipulating that the very “concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false”. The main goal of the program is “to dismantle racism in mathematics instruction” with the expressly political aim of engaging “the sociopolitical turn in all aspects of education, including mathematics.”

In the past, I would have said that such statements should be ignored as too radical and absurd to merit refutation. But recent trends across the country suggest that we no longer have that luxury.

So let me state the following for the record: Nothing in the history and current practice of mathematics justifies the notion that it is in any way different or dependent on the particular race or ethnic group engaged in it.

Klainerman is clearly mad as hell and isn’t going to take it any more:

Schools throughout the world teach the same basic body of mathematics. They differ only by the methodology and intensity with which they instruct students.

It is precisely this universality of math — together with the extraordinary ability of American universities to reward hard work and talent — that allowed me, and so many other young scientists and mathematicians, to come to this country and achieve success beyond our wildest dreams.

The idea that focusing on getting the “right answer” is now considered among some self-described progressives a form of bias or racism is offensive and extraordinarily dangerous. The entire study of mathematics is based on clearly formulated definitions and statements of fact. If this were not so, bridges would collapse, planes would fall from the sky, and bank transactions would be impossible.

The ability of mathematics to provide right answers to well-formulated problems is not something specific to one culture or another; it is really the essence of mathematics. To claim otherwise is to argue that somehow the math taught in places like Iran, China, India or Nigeria is not genuinely theirs but borrowed or forged from “white supremacy culture.” It is hard to imagine a more ignorant and offensive statement.

His ending:

Finally, and most importantly, the woke approach to mathematics is particularly poisonous to those it pretends to want to help. Let’s start with the reasonable assumption that mathematical talent is equally distributed at birth to children from all socio-economic backgrounds, independent of ethnicity, sex and race. Those born in poor, uneducated families have clear educational disadvantages relative to others. But mathematics can act as a powerful equalizer. Through its set of well-defined, culturally unbiased, unambiguous set of rules, mathematics gives smart kids the potential to be, at least in this respect, on equal footing with all others. They can stand out by simply finding the right answers to questions with objective results.

There is no such thing as “white” mathematics. There is no reason to assume, as the activists do, that minority kids are not capable of mathematics or of finding the “right answers.” And there can be no justification for, in the name of “equity” or anything else, depriving students of the rigorous education that they need to succeed. The real antiracists will stand up and oppose this nonsense.

This kind of math is coming to a school near you, whether you live in California, Oregon, or other areas with Woke schools. And, as Klainerman notes, this kind of teaching is not only a form of anti-black racism, but will hold back not just black kids, but any kid subject to it. It’s the new ways of teaching themselves, coupled with the assumption that black children simply cannot do math the way it’s taught now, that are paternalistic. You do not take a math class and turn it into a social justice class. But that is precisely what this book—as well as Bill and Melinda Gates—are recommending.

The dismantling of meritocracy, a misguided way of obviating the achievement gap between races, will, in the end, make everybody dumber.  By all means let us have affirmative action, but let’s not eliminate every way to assess the achievements of students. (This is what’s behind the unstoppable elimination of standardized tests for college and grad-school admission.) We do students no favors by assuming that every student’s potential in any area is exactly the same as every other’s, which is what Ibram Kendi asserts in his book How to be an Antiracist. Can’t do math? Well, you must excel in some other area, like “eagerness to learn.”

Achievement gaps are real, but rather than use sneaky ways to obviate them, or pretend they don’t exist, why can’t we use the old adage: “a rising tide lifts all boats”? And that tide, in my view, should be a huge American investment in fostering equal opportunity, beginning at birth. That requires substantial investment in minority communities, which I guess you can see as a form of reparations. As I’ve said repeatedly, that will be hard, time-consuming, and expensive. It’s not a quick fix, but it’s the only way to create true equality.

49 thoughts on “A bit more on the racism of math

  1. Bravo

    Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee have supported the notion that “minority communities” and parents do not explain the weak performance of the United States public education system in the documentary Waiting for Superman, which I regularly offer as an short, easy way to see some of the preconceived notions associated with public schools.

    1. I watched Waiting for Superman and reviewed it on Amazon.

      The golden examples shown in that movie are all, not teaching, but surrogate parenting.

      Teachers that go to the kids homes and do their homework with them. (Why do they call it home work?)
      Boarding schools? (Enough said) 3 shifts of staff.

      The daughter of a work colleague was one of those “super teachers”. She did exactly that, working 12-14 hour days. Went to the kids homes and did their homework with them. Provided them food, laundry, etc. She risked her personal safety going to those neighborhoods. She got to meet President Obama. She was passionate. She burned out in less than 2 years and left the profession.

      Ask yourself: Is “superman” a reasonable model for any profession, let alone one that is relatively poorly paid and the frequent target for blame for all that ails society? There are vanishingly few supermen in any society. How many people do you realistically think are willing to give up their time with their own family, give up raising their own kids, in order to raise other people’s kids? (Because that is what is being asked.) How is that a reasonable model?

    2. After reading that comment, I watched “Waiting for Superman”. I am shocked. I don’t know the US well enough to have a reliable opinion, but the uderlying thesis “the teachers (who incidentally are heroes) and the teachers’ unions are responsible for the mess” is shameful I think.

      1. I’d place it squarely in the “shockumentary” genre. The most use I thought was to get the scope of all the elements, of which I was ignorant or fantasizing about. All of it I think is worth examining on one’s own, because indeed, the main thrust is deeply depressing.

  2. Thanks for this Jerry.

    My comments: There are only math and science, not white math, Chinese science, Indian math, Nigerian science, Argentinian math, or Indonesian science. It is one of the great triumphs of math and science that this is a fact. That scientists and mathematicians from around the world can all speak a common language of math and science.

    “That requires substantial investment in minority communities, which I guess you can see as a form of reparations.”

    I agree that more investment* is needed; but its details are critically important, both functionally and politically. Just taxing people more heavily based on race and giving cash to others based on race (in addition to not being able to pass constitutional muster) seems unworkable and would certainly be viewed as unfair.

    All that said: *Preparing citizens for a good job rather than a prison cell is one of the best investments society can make (e.g. public schooling).

    But as had been said of police (don’t put mental health on them, etc.) the burden of this should not fall on the schools (beyond educating children), as it mainly does now. This is social work, not education.

    Again and again, I hear that we need “social justice” but no description of even what that goal looks like, let alone specific policies to achieve it.

  3. I wonder which of the following is more likely the reason this type of religious propaganda is not only being accepted by boards of education, but also so vehemently praised and passed along: Is it that (1) They are afraid of being cancelled if they don’t publicly support and implement this dreck or (2) School/Education leadership boards and institutions are now at a saturation point of being fully infiltrated by CRT fanatics?

    I know this has been brewing for awhile, but it seems like we’ve reached the tipping point. I’m seriously wondering what happens next.

    1. More of 1 than 2 would be my guess. People who can sense that something is wrong but aren’t confident about arguing back and articulating why, and would each, individually, personally, prefer to avoid the aggro. It seems that people willing to take the reputational risk for the sake of a principle or a larger good are sadly less common that we all might hope.

  4. “But that is precisely what this book—as well as Bill and Melinda Gates—are recommending.”

    That’s probably pushing it too far — nothing I’ve ever heard either of the Gates say suggests they would support the ideas espoused here. My guess would be that they were asked to support a project to improve math education among the target groups, and were happy to support that goal. I suspect a request for follow-up funding, now we’ve seen the ideology in which it’s couched, might not get the same response …

    1. Is merely not providing additional funding enough? How about a disavowal of what earlier funding has resulted in (presuming that there has been sufficient time and publicity to bring it to the Gates’s attention)? Without that, it seems fair to me to suggest that the Gates’s support this nonsense.

    2. The NSF and NIH have probably funded their share of boners, too.
      I don’t think we necessarily need funders to repudiate every wasted grant they’re responsible for; not-funding future R&D from the same PI seems reasonable to me. Else we risk apeing the woke, and demanding statements of mea culpa and commitments to virtue for every mistake. .

  5. Reading this has made me realize I do not want people taught the de-colonialized version of math working where I do my banking.

  6. I can say from at least my personal experience (which is lived experience, I suppose, since I don’t see how experience could NOT be lived) that it can be “easier” to get a good grade in a Physics or Mathematics course than in, say, literature. If you know the answers–or at least can demonstrate, by showing your work, that you get the idea, and so get partial credit–then you can get a good grade. In the humanities, you basically have to write papers and respond in class in ways that please the instructor and/or agree with that individual’s take on things.

    I had to change majors during second year of college because a medical issue (heart surgery for an atrial septal defect) left me with, thankfully temporary, difficulty keeping up with Physics and the related Mathematics (partially due to a major depressive episode triggered by the surgery, as often happens). My grades in English were worse than my grades in Physics had been, even the ones after my surgery, and I’m pretty convinced that this wasn’t JUST because of the depression. Perhaps I’m wrong.

    In any case, I think the very objective nature of Mathematics in particular and STEM pursuits generally makes them a real equalizer, at least relatively speaking, and a source of significant opportunity for many people.

    1. In the humanities, you basically have to write papers and respond in class in ways that please the instructor and/or agree with that individual’s take on things.

      I mentioned a little in the other thread about my own ‘lived experience’ as a non-traditional student who didn’t think they could do the STEM. I was very motivated as an older student, as every hour in the class room I was not only paying for, but losing my income by not being at work and also losing time with my family. So I wanted every minute to count and I wanted a 4.0, dammit. Which I was getting, even in those hard math classes. Cut to World Literature, and dear Mr. La Fran. He wanted us to write an essay after finishing The Ramayana – on how it changed our views of the nature of evil in the world. I wrote a technically perfect essay (I maintain this!) and got a 95%. Confused and annoyed, I marched myself into his office to find out ‘what was wrong’ with my essay. He was gracious, but let me know nothing was wrong it it, per se, just that he preferred a colorful turn of phrase here and there and a little more, ‘je ne sais quois’.

      tl;dr – yes, agree with your post very much.

      1. The very idea of assigning a numeric grade of that precision to an essay strikes me as ridiculous. Would one more allusion have raised it to 96%?

        1. If the experience of my kids is representative, the main way to get top marks on humanities assignments is to at least appear to agree with the professor’s endorsements of International Socialism.
          My kids have been fully immunized against communist propaganda, and have actually read and understand the source material. So when the professors included such material, they frequently brought it home for discussion. It was insidious and relentless.

          Since history as it actually occurred does not particularly support woke philosophy, It appears necessary to teach an alternate version of history, that does not conform to the actual events, in the sense that it conflicts with recorded history and evidence obtained through research and excavation. I find this particularly maddening, especially when the course in question is one where I have specific expertise.

          So, in addition to teaching unethical ethics and history that did not happen, they now plan to teach math that does not require the correct answer, which logically progresses to engineering where the structural calculations need not be exact, and approximate accounting.

          On top of it all, I have read that the offending Dr. Seuss titles have already been removed from sale, and will be destroyed.

          To quote Jack Crabb, “the world is too ridiculous to even bother to living in”.

    2. I’m afraid you mischaracterise degree level maths. The important point is to know the methods and the answers aren’t really that consequential except as an endpoint. To take a school level example, knowing the roots of a certain quadratic equation isn’t maths. Knowing how to factorise quadratic equations and knowing how to prove the formula is.

      The answers in maths aren’t knowing theorems and formulas, they are knowing how to prove theorems and formulas and how to apply them. I know from experience that that isn’t easy.

      I think you do a disservice to at least some humanities professors (excepting, perhaps those who specialise in CRT). I don’t think you necessarily have to agree with their take, but you do have to be able to put up a convincing argument and, for some people it comes a lot easier than understanding how to prove Euler’s formula or what it even means. On the other hand, I find University level maths hard, but I don’t really get literature at all.

      ETA: I think your last paragraph nails it. I don’t think your background culture matters at all as far as maths is concerned, But your background culture probably makes a huge difference to your appreciation of Shakespeare or Mozart. And note how I use two European white males as examples because I have no idea who their analogues would be in China or any African culture.

      1. I hear you. And I don’t want to give a bad impression of my humanities professors. They were thoroughly reasonable people and not unfair in general. It’s just that, in physics or maths, if everyone gets all the answers right, everyone can get an “A” in principle. There seems to be more general fluidity in what can be worthy of an “A” in literature, for instance, and so it can be hard for everyone to be “first equal” so to speak.

        That said, this didn’t diminish my love of Shakespeare (for example). I once took two Shakespeare courses at the same time…I did not get an “A” in either one, but I enjoyed them thoroughly.

        1. There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so, as a moody feller from Elsinore Castle once said.

      2. FSC Northrop’s magisterial _The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities_ argued three quarters of a century ago that the core methods of analysis in both domains, the analytic toolkit and rules for its application, was in crucial respects the same, and in my view the New Critics—Cleanth Brooks, I A Richards and others— produced literary analyses embodying a nomological-deductive approach to interpretation that could have been perfect cases in point for Northrop’s thesis. The onset of post-modernist critical theory babble caused probably irreparable harm to the credibility of the humanities—I really don’t see how they can ever recover, even if they finally stop their death spiral into complete obscurantist charlatanry being led by the likes of Judith Butler, which they show no sign of being prepared to do. But they *can* be done magnificently, though you would never know it looking at much of what comes out of humanities departments.

  7. If this had been written in the 1800s it would have been lambasted for being the perfect example of racism and a means of dumbing down POC and keeping them that way. Super weird. If it wasn’t so serious it would be funny but alas who knows what ramifications this cods wallop will have for a future society.

  8. The part about collaborative learning being bad breaks my heart. That is one of the very best things for learning, imo. Working together with people who come with their own unique skill sets and approaches, laboring together towards a common (correct) answer. This is all just so misguided and ‘not helping!’.

    1. Collaborative learning is fine so long as all group members make a reasonable effort to do their parts. If not all do, then those who do have to decide whether to confront those who don’t and/or address the issue with the teacher/professor, or, keep their mouths shut, so as to Keep The Peace – and (resentfully) take up the slack the others lazily let out. I’ve been in a few group endeavors, and at times felt I would just as soon do it myself as opposed to having to press others to do their part.

  9. As that white male supremacist (only we were too ignorant to recognise it at the time) Charlie Brown would say, “Good grief!” Who knew that the precise answer to 2+2 varied according to skin colour?

    1. Any good teacher should call on all of their students to participate in class, so the whole “notions of perfectionism” cited in “Stride 1” ( WTF?) of the booklet is misguided.

  10. This has already happened with the teaching of English and writing, starting back in the ’80s when departments of education started teaching that grammar wasn’t important but that self-expression was all that mattered, and shouldn’t be judged on the quality of writing. Since then college students’ writing abilities plummeted to the point where we are today, when many of them can’t even write a grammatically correct sentence.

    I would argue that grammar is like math, and although only universal within a given language, rules are rules and they’re there for a reason, to communicate more clearly.

    Kurt Vonnegut, by the way, predicted this, that rather than allowing each person to reach their potential everyone will be dumbed down to the level of the least competent among us.

  11. I fail to see how math taught in say Nigeria or Namibia is materially different than in the US or the expectation that kids should solve math problems correctly. So why would black American students taught math in the US using the same methods as black African students taught math by black teachers require different instruction that’s not “racist”? Seems like a QED to me.

  12. When I first met my wife, a native of China, over twenty years ago, there was still a brain drain from China, that is, students coming from the PRC to study at the most prestigious institutions in the USA. Most of those students stayed here after their formal education was finished. Then, say, ten years ago, those students went back to China after their schooling here. Now there are signs of a reverse brain drain, with many of those who immigrated from China returning to their native land. I wonder if the next phase will be a brain drain from the USA to foreign lands. After all, authoritarian regimes, whether on the left or the right, eventually destroy themselves by causing their best minds to flee.

  13. I would guess that Bill Gates himself is unaware of the pamphlet’s content, and that the Gates Foundation was sold a bill of goods by educrats associated with (or perhaps recently graduated from) Schools of Ed. Much of the denunciation of standards of competence as a “whiteness” social construct comes from educrats who are white themselves, and hold advanced degrees (advanced degrees!) in such things as
    “Educational Policy”, “Leadership”, and “Multicultural and Diversity Studies”. I often wonder whether these individuals’ hostility toward competence (“correct answers”, “perfectionism”, etc. etc.) is attributable to their childhood traumas of struggling with sums in the 3rd grade, let alone the terrors of long division after that. Something must have led them to “Educational Policy” etc., rather than honest work.

  14. 1966/7, Senior year, Jefferson High Fairfax Co VA, the highest level math class was IIRC called Probability and Statistics. Our teacher was a little bitty and I think fairly old black lady, Beatrice Harrington. I’m pretty sure she was the only black teacher in the whole HS at that time; the school itself was only barely integrated itself. I have no idea what her background was, but in interacting with the class she was known to say things like, “Speak to me, students, who has the answer.” When eg my pal Mike Healy would raise his hand and provide the correct answer, she was likely to slap her thigh and say, “Praise the Lord, Healy has the answer!”

    I wonder what the folks pushing this agenda would think of that.

    1. Love your story! My deep love of math came from a black, gay, North Carolinian teacher at the American International School in Vienna. Archie Love was the best. There were only 7 students in our senior math class and we were all free to go up to the board and argue with Archie or each other. Granted, this is not as easy to do in a class of 30. His only class management problem with us was the one day we all decided that we had heard the bell 15 minutes early.

  15. I can’t wait to see the professional prospects for newly minted Ph.Ds graduating from Woke Math departments. Maybe they’ll work for NASA on a Mars mission to send the next generation of Mars rover, complete with solar-powered, fully autonomous drone swarms or Boston Dynamics robotic dog packs to explore the planet for life…but will accidently crash into the moon en route to the red planet by not getting the “white” telemmetry calculations right.

    1. Here let me help you out in their NASA approach. Perhaps they can do it as suggested from the booklet:

      Offer a variety of ways to demonstrate thinking and
      • Verbal Example: Show your thinking with words,
      pictures, symbols.
      • Classroom Activity: Have students create TikTok
      videos, silent films, or cartoons about mathematical
      concepts or procedures.
      • Professional Development: Practice with math
      colleagues how to answer mathematical problems
      without using words or numbers.

      No worries getting to Mars then :).

  16. I am a pseudo-mathematician. My undergrad degree is in math. I was taking Topoloy with Paul Sally. Sally was the first director of the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project. I was having problems with the class. I was not getting it. A large issue was that 12 years of catholic “education” did not really prepare me for UofC. I was in Sally’s office when he said to me – What separates good mathematicians from great mathematicians is how hard they work. But you have to at least do some work.

    I did not really understand what he meant. I was pretty stupid back then. Eventually, I got it. That is the thing about math. It is what Sally and Izaak Wirszup emphasized in the UCSMP from the beginning. You don’t just get math. You have to work at it. Hard. We do not emphasize that in the US. It is OK if you are not a math person. This stupidity will make the situation worse.

    1. I used to tell my students that you can’t just look at a solved problem on the board (or in the textbook) and assume you get it. Or even just solve one problem. A pitcher can’t just throw one perfect pitch and leave it at that. Practice practice practice…(eyes rolling in the back of the class.) Unfortunately our young, and very bright, dept. head got on the only do a couple of examples/problems bandwagon. I know I’m preaching to the choir here🤓

  17. It would be worth thinking about a definition of mathematics. I don’t know of a crystalline definition, but “math is what mathematicians do” is a witty one, and “math is about ideas” an intriguing one.

  18. Apologies but it appears this didn’t make it – second try (a quote) :

    “My mom would teach us mathematics at home. […]. We spent quite a bit on mathematics for only one reason : it’s because they were from Singapore, and they weren’t exactly sure if they were going to stay in the United States. And I remember my parents telling me : “Let’s make sure that you learn what all of your classmates in Singapore are learning, because if we go back to Singapore, that way you won’t be the bottom of the class”.

    – Po-Shen Loh, interview (1 of 3) with Eddie Woo, 22 January 2021, at t=1:36 : https://youtu.be/B2Z19_M_v9M

  19. I’m not now a religious believer, but I still can pull out a bible verse now and then. The one I am thinking of is:

    “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

    Replace “experts in the law” with “experts in critical theory”.

    Knowing a bit of math myself, it’s blindingly obvious that the people driving this know absolutely nothing of math. I’d love to see one asked to solve a simple word problem with just one variable. Hand them a piece of chalk, stand at the board, take as long as you need – show us why ignorance of math is a good thing.

    Sad thing is, they have no idea how ignorant they really are. It’s sad that so many pay top dollar (or their parents do) to get a post graduate degree with nothing to show for it except a mouthful of postmodern mush.

  20. The Woke cult has fully transitioned from being pseudo-intellectual to being explicitly anti-intellectual. Mathematical and scientific rigor are now racist? Right. How is that Woke bullshit not as McWhorter brilliantly explains — itself racist. The racism of low expectations.

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