McWhorter and Loury on the math gap

March 8, 2021 • 2:00 pm

Here’s a 15-minute segment of the latest Glenn Show, featuring Glenn Loury and John McWhorter. (To see the rest requires a Patreon donation). In it, both men take up the issue of the black/white race gap in academic achievement, and both seem to attribute it to the culture of African-Americans. That, of course, is anathema to antiracists like Ibram Kendi, who seems to has a feud going on with McWhorter.

McWhorter refers to Ibram Kendi’s dictum, one that I just read in his How to be an Antiracist book, that black students should be ranked on their “desire to know” rather than what they do know. McWhorter’s characterization of Kendi is correct, as Kendi says that there are “different ways of ranking” appropriate to each race, and that black students should be ranked not by achievement, which is a white criterion, but by things like their spunk and their desire to know. And yet despite that, Kendi also says that the idea of a black culture is an illusion, and that all races are equal in every respect, including culture, though there are some local differences. This is one of the contradictions I found in Kendi’s book. (I recommend that everyone read it, as we all need to know about the bibles of the anti-racist movement. You will learn some stuff, and it’s not all bad, but it’s truly Manichean in its worldview.)

Loury gets particularly exercised at the low performance of black students in mathematics (he’s an economist), and at people who say that math is not a Black Thing. At times Loury looks like he’s going to blow out an artery, almost yelling that the response of people like Kendi is to “denounce the entire corpus that your people are not mastering by saying that it’s somehow alien to, or in fact repressive to the essence of your people.”

McWhorter chimes in, adding that the notion that each ethnic group should be judged by a different set of academic standards is a view that is often raised, but “has never gotten any purchase”.  Loury and McWhorter both suspect that the achievement gap is caused by a subtle cultural factor connected with “what it is to be raised black”. And that view is absolutely opposed to the ideas of Kendi, who doesn’t think that black “culture” operates any differently from white culture. Kendi, I believe, would attribute the math gap to racist policies of the present put in place by the academic power structure.

Loury winds up extolling the universality and beauty of math, using as one example we should admire the fact that “there is no largest prime number.” The universality of mathematical instruction, he implies, means that there is no reason not to teach any group differently from any other, nor hold different groups to different standards.

I hope that Loury doesn’t have high blood pressure, as he’s going to get an aneurism if he keeps getting this exercised. Both men, as usual, are great speakers, uttering long disquisitions without a hitch. Their conversations are a thing to behold.

65 thoughts on “McWhorter and Loury on the math gap

  1. I wonder how one would measure a student’s “desire to know,” in this case, Math? I would think a sufficiently strong desire would translate into actually learning it. (I dare say many boys and girls I sat in Math classes with managed to get though them with no very strong desire.) I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln, who had less than twelve months of formal schooling, and who got himself a copy of Euclid’s Elements, and didn’t put it away until he’d puzzled through it all.

    1. My first thought on hearing this “desire to know” idea: What better way of measuring desire to know than to measure knowledge gained over time? Anyone can fake a desire to know but it’s much harder to fake the actual knowledge.

    2. Yes, there are many students who never got excited about math and also some who had not so good teachers to help widen the gap. However, I don’t think Abe Lincoln would be a fair comparison for any as he was so far beyond any normal human then or now.

  2. Per Kendi’s dictum, when the bridge collapses due to faulty design, I guess “but the architect had a strong ‘desire to know'” would be Kendi’s defense against malpractice. And it may be the defense we will all be bowing to (lest we be called “racist”) in the coming Age of Wokeness.

    1. The lawsuits are not going to be brought by intimidated, spineless members of Woke academia, but by angry people who want a reckoning. The jurors are going to be for the most part normal people who realize the same thing could happen to them or their loved ones, and I have a hard time picturing a defense that might work in the academic senates at Haverford, Yale or Smith actually carrying much weight in the scenario you describe. Criminal negligence laws are not going to be amended to accord with the pathological thinking that Kendi is pushing. Everyone is going to need and want responsible medical attention at some point in their lives; can we really see a botched hip replacement which leaves the patient paralyzed from the waist down being successfully defended before a jury of potential hip replacement patients on the grounds that the surgeon ‘wanted to do a really good hip replacement’? Nah—I don’t buy it.

  3. So if we accept the view that skin color should alter how we judge success and achievement in maths, or that maths just isn’t a “black thing”, how should we then judge astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, or mathematician (and former NFL player) John Urschel?

    Seriously, what an absolute load of shite. And I can recommend Urschel’s memoire, Mind and Matter, and NdGT’s The Sky is Not the Limit. It’s clear from both that the difference in success isn’t skin color, but parenting, personal drive, and desire to succeed, which is more important than just the “desire to know”.

  4. There is a case to be made against the way math is typically taught today, though Kendi isn’t helping. Even in advanced classes, students are marched through worksheets and required to do the same thing over and over. (The advanced classes get the same treatment, but faster.) Questions are made harder by sprinkling in opportunities to make arithmetic mistakes and not by increasing cognitive complexity. And the focus is on doing all your work on time instead of building skills. Some of this is legitimate, but it’s overdone in most schools. If you don’t believe me, see what a course is like even in the “good” schools. There’s little that could be described as “teaching.” It’s a firehose of content that turns people off of math forever, because they think that “math” means doing what you’re told over and over.

    Some of these criticisms are present in the Critical Race Theory publications, but it all gets drowned out in the noise. It would be a shame if unhelpful critiques interfered with legitimate concerns.

    1. I don’t remember it being the way you describe in college math classes, though I suspect repetition is common in applied math classes intended for non math majors. Perhaps you are talking about grade school math which is often aimed at teaching the least motivated students.

      1. Yes, the subject of the video was more about grade school math, so I was sticking to that. In College Math, the bigger concern is what should be required in the first place. Do we need future social workers to factor polynomials?

        1. I always contended that factoring polynomials, and even calculus, was good for anyone’s brain, if one used the details in one’s everyday work, or not.

          1. Yes, I agree. It is the structured approach to problem solving and the abstract understanding that is valuable for the rest of one’s life, though most who learn it won’t appreciate what they’ve gained from the experience.

    2. To be fair, much of the math that the average person or even a scientist really needs is purely arithmetic skills, the faster and easier the better. I think that the best way to strengthen these skills today would be by a set of computer games.

      1. I agree that advanced math skills can be valuable to many if they are actually acquired. But that’s not what happens and not the decision before us. The question is: should they be required of everyone? Should we stop people from graduating in non-quant fields if they can’t deal with rational zeros? Should future nurses need to study matrix multiplication? I’m not claiming that you should be able to graduate from college with no math knowledge at all. (Nurses need to know ratios, percents, unit conversions, and more.) Instead, I’m saying that the math we require should be more practical, and we shouldn’t trap millions of people in remedial math college classes just because they haven’t mastered skills that they aren’t interested in and aren’t relevant to their career goals.

        1. “Should future nurses need to study matrix multiplication?”

          This is a disingenuous way to put it. It is unlikely that a nurse will need to use matrix multiplication but is it necessary to be able to draw a straight line between a bit of understanding and its direct use later in life? I had to play dodgeball in my PE class. It’s definitely a skill that increases with practice. I could have complained to the coach that I’ll never need the skills in “real life” but I doubt it would have been a persuasive argument.

          Learning matrix multiplication, and the larger subject that contains it, teaches rational thinking and problem solving skills. They could probably be learned some other way but not in basket weaving and probably not in English Comp.

          1. “Should future nurses need to study matrix multiplication?”

            Maybe not to be skilled at doing it, but surely as many people as possible should begin to understand the difference between linear growth and exponential growth, e.g. virus spread, and that is definitely related to matrix multiplication.

            1. I’m just replying here for the heck of it :

              “When I was reading Harry Potter, I didn’t find myself asking, “when will I ever use Wingardium Leviosa?””
              -Grant Sanderson (see below)

              Asking how academics subjects, or anything else, I’d say, matter in one’s personal real life is the wrong question.

              There is an old aphorism : “skill will find it’s application”.

              Grant Sanderson addresses this very clearly in this worthwhile TED Talk (remember those?) : https://youtu.be/s_L-fp8gDzY

              Sanderson puts it concisely in this quote, at 9:10 in the video :

              “When I was reading Harry Potter, I didn’t find myself asking, “when will I ever use Wingardium Leviosa?””

              The talk features many magnificent presentations on sample topics in a style that Sanderson has crafted on his own.

              1. Our everyday experience was made possible in part by mathematics. Once one considers this, mathematics goes all the way down (with other things, integrally, of course).

      2. I could be unfair, with my using of ” …”s, if I brutally quoted you as saying “…the math that …. a scientist really needs is purely arithmetic skills…”

        You surely don’t actually mean that.

        Even “…the average person…” would like to know what is meant when recently the talking heads on TV babble something like ‘such and such vaccine is 96% effective’.

        I haven’t yet dug into that to be sure what exactly it does mean. But I am absolutely certain it does NOT mean that if you take 200,000 people randomly splitting them and give half a placebo and half the vaccine, that ‘only”!! 96% of the vaccinated will get Covid. Of course, because you’d have roughly 4,000 vaccinated getting it, but only about 1500 or 2000 pacebo-ated ones getting Covid, IIRC about the contagiousness. It is not hard to guess that it was what percent–of those who were already STATISTICALLY expected to get it–would actually get it.

        At any rate, surely anyone even close to justifiably able to call him or herself a scientist would be expected to be able to understand quite thoroughly a moderately complex sentence explaining the meaning of something like that. And that ability is far more subtle than “purely arithmetic skills”.

      3. Most people, and certainly anyone in journalism or the social sciences and medicine, would profit from a good grounding in statistics including probability theory.

    3. If you want to be good at maths or even arithmetic, you need to practice. It’s the same with any skill. Unfortunately, the kind of maths that most people need is not very exciting at the best of times but you still have to practise it.

      Maybe turning it into a game might help. For example, one of my teachers when I was about 10 or 11 used to make us fill in multiplication squares with the rows and columns shuffled. It was a competition to see who could do it most quickly. You had to know your times tables in that class.

  5. McWhorter was good too, but for me Loury’s remarks on the problem stood out more:

    How can we explain it? … and what is better than to wrap ourselves in the warm blanket of antiracist outrage?

    His points about “poor white kids” and “missing the mark when you racialise” the problem because these are “not identitarian matters, these are human matters” were also very well made.

  6. So ‘ a strong desire to know but you can’t’ is the scenario. Logically by extension I have a strong desire to run really fast so I deserve to be on the Olympic team sounds like a solid plan. Clearly a well thought out strategy and voila we are all Oympians

    1. In the sprint events, how would using the white athletes’ “strong desire” to participate to overrule the black athletes’ “strong performance” go down, I wonder?

      With the 2020 Olympics taking place in 2021 without changing the digits, maybe we already live in a world where numerical precision no longer matters.

      1. Remember the simple heuristic that the radical left follows:

        – If nonwhite* people excel at X, there is nothing wrong with X. But if nonwhite people fall short in X, then X must be racist.

        Or put another way, group disparities are only a problem when they negatively affect black people.

        *Nonwhite excludes Asians

  7. Someone, I don’t remember who, once commented that fascism would arrive in the US
    calling itself anti-fascism. As Glenn Loury points out in regard to the rejection of Math, precision, knowledge, and standards by Ibram Kendi & Co., we now have racism calling itself anti-racism. Interesting that they both pointed out the class, as opposed to ethnic, basis of anti-intellectual culture. I am also impressed by the thoughtfulness and subtlety of John McWhorter’s comments; he thinks deeply about the context and background of these issues. I had very few professors as impressive as these two guys in my own undergrad days, back in the Paleozoic Era.

    1. This is from Ignazio Silone, though in Germany, is it is sometimes attributed to Brecht:
      When fascism returns, it will not say, “I am fascism’, no, it will say ‘I am antifascism’.

  8. People like Kendi piss me off so much.

    As a student who was good at math, I grew up with the “oreo” label (black on the outside, white on the inside) mainly from other black people. Kendi is in effect saying that he agrees with that when he says that math is a white people thing.

    To think this isn’t a cultural thing seems pretty ridiculous in my experience. I grew up to a single mom in Harlem in the 80s, but I was very nerdy and introverted. Like a lot of other nerds, I was skinny, awkward, and not very good at sports. Luckily, due to gaming the public school system in NYC, my mom was able to move me from my east Harlem school to have me attend a better school on the upper west side where my friend group was more like me. That led me to getting into Bronx Science (which was ~60% Asian in the 90s when I attended, which makes Asians “white adjacent” in this absurd math-racial heirarchy) and eventually to a MS in computer science.

    I loathe to think what my life would have turned out to be if people like Kendi were in charge of my education. I really have some unpleasant choice words for him and people who think like him; I had to put up with it all of my early life.

    1. So glad you were able to skirt the obstacles of your youth and succeed in Math and CS, but sorry you/we have to contend with this Kendi BS now. Great to hear this criticism from a Black man! (I’m a retired Math and CS teacher and only had to contend with being female and blonde. I’ve probably mentioned this here before, but a few years ago I was assigned to team-teach a 10th grade math class with a Black guy from Guyana, and Neville’s comments were always math is math is math. No such thing as Black math.)

            1. Yeah, nobody bats an eye if you say math is tough, or you can’t do math, but try admitting you can’t read!

              1. Thanks, Ken. It was tough, but somebody had to do it. I’m quite partial to my terminal “e”, despite the fact that so many telemarketers call me Merrill.

    2. Glen and John are often accused of being dupes of the racist right-wing. But in reality, by setting such a low bar for black people, it’s folks like Kendi that are the true enablers of racist thinking. And since Kendi is obviously doing this with the best of intentions, but is just profoundly confused, he and is ilk are the real dupes.

    3. Kendi is a race hustler. He’s not here to help. He’s here to gain money and prestige by exploiting racial problems. Booker T. Washington warned of such people over a hundred years ago.

  9. It seems to me that the anti-racist movement has somehow landed in one boat with proponents of slavery in bygone days, claiming that black people can never grasp math.

  10. This is probably not a perfect rebuttal, but of course students in Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya and so on sit in math classes and they learn math. I don’t think they say “just learn the concept. It does not matter if its right”, either.

  11. Loury gets particularly exercised at the low performance of black students in mathematics (he’s an economist), and at people who say that math is not a Black Thing.

    “Math class is tough” – Teen Talk Barbie, 1992.

    It’s probably a mix of internal cultural opinions and external forces mirroring back to African Americans what those external influences think is black culture. We know that the latter happens – as the example above shows. Barbie’s expression wasn’t “female culture” – it was Mattell’s low opinion of female culture pushed back at them.

    1. “Math class is tough”

      To be fair to Mattel, it is what kids (and adults) say. I suspect that Barbie’s designers didn’t give it a second thought when they designed it into the doll. Instead of reflecting a low opinion of female culture, they simply failed to take advantage of their product to change social mores. Their subsequent removal of “math class is tough” and release of career-themed Barbies reflected a reasonable response to customer demand and not so much a change in their own attitudes toward women.

      1. To be fair to Mattel, it is what kids (and adults) say.

        And yet, the talking GI Joe they released at the same time didn’t speak about anything being difficult. Pure coincidence, I guess.

        I don’t think ones’ parents or “culture” are the only or even primary source of the ‘curse of low expectations’. My opinion – which is my own – is that it’s much more likely to be put on people from a culture from those outside of it, rather than being an internal cultural thing.

        1. Both Barbie’s “math class is tough” and Joe’s not saying such things reflected real life at the time. I suspect that Mattel’s designers were trying to make dolls that reflected its customers’ view of life. This was probably not difficult as the designers shared the same view of life, more or less. Dolls are stand-ins for real people so they were trying to make them realistic. However, some people noted that perhaps realism shouldn’t be the only goal. Another goal is to actually drive kids’ thinking in a certain direction that was deemed an improvement. So, looking at it this way, Mattel was driven by public opinion to do make their dolls manipulate the kids minds.

          I’m not saying this is a bad thing but just trying to point out that it is not so simple as Mattel designers imposing their “low opinion of women” on kids. This implies that they had a lower opinion of women than the public as a whole, which I doubt. It also ignores the fact that many people, then and now, think math class is tough. It wouldn’t at all surprise me if women say something like this more often than men. Although we are trying hard to get more women in science and engineering, the fact remains that many aren’t interested in it. We should continue to remove barriers that prevent women choosing those professions but not be surprised if we never reach equal outcomes.

        2. “My opinion – which is my own – is that it’s much more likely to be put on people from a culture from those outside of it, rather than being an internal cultural thing.”

          So how does this explain the general high achievement of the West Indian black immigrants, Asian americans, and Jewish people in the US? They all seem to have internal cultural forces that drive academic and intellectual achievement, often against the grain the dominant culture.

    2. Juvenile toys are a problem that will never go away inside a red herring inside a moral panic.

  12. The “desire to know” usually translates into an elevated effort put into learning. So the student puts in more time studying, identifies and addresses areas where he or she seems weak, even seeks help.
    I bet such a student would be fairly easy to identify because they learn the material and do the work. This should be reflected in their grades.
    I was taught that talent and persistence both play a big part in success, and deficits in talent can usually be compensated for with extra effort.

  13. An important thing to know to understand such a gap is the perception of the teacher by the students. IOW the teachers’ “race”. There are many layers to this but if, like I suspect, a teacher is “white” the “black” students could – for reasons McWhorter and Loury suggest – be defensive, keep to themselves. Perhaps “white” students as well. The other combinations – white student, black teacher, etc.- not sure. And of course, we assume they are talking about the United States public education, not e.g. Singapore, which has excellent mathematics education results. Meaning, all US students and pre-K-12 public school teachers have a lot to gain by looking at how other countries can get such great results – there is no time for staring at everyone’s skin and feeding grievances, because graduation comes before they know it.

    Of course more information and data is needed in general, including where Loury saw this, but I think in theory that would tell more of a story – a graph of the teachers’ “race” sorted with the students’ “race” and scores.

  14. Music in principle – that is, in my head – can be taught without learning an instrument but I’m not sure if any reputable school does this – as in music composition, for instance. The composer knows the sounds they want and uses the orchestra as an instrument but doesn’t have each instrument in their apartment. They might know how to play each instrument with proficiency, I have no idea.

    Is this superficially what is proposed by such mathematics? Sort of knowing what is supposed to happen but we don’t really need to do it every time?

  15. At first I took–likely mistook– your initial paragraph as saying that there is a good analogy saying that teaching ‘abstract’ music with also a particular application in mind, a musical instrument to learn, can be analogous to teaching abstract math with also a particular application in mind (e.g. understanding vaccine companies’ Covid assertions as in an above reply).

    I would fairly strongly agree with that.

    There is however a notion of division of labour–‘labor’ for most of you!–especially as one gets into more advanced education.

    There are often disputes in universities, say about who gets to teach math to engineering students, the math faculty or the engineering faculty! Similarly e.g., is Statistics at UChicago for biology students taught by mathematical statisticians or by biologists?

    As usual, I’m getting off topic.

  16. Families with greater resources can afford supplemental, external, independent classes outside of the conventional school. This could explain some of the higher performing students, while the premise of the testing results is that the skill is wholly from the school which administered the test itself, and only the parents helping possibly.

    The interpretation of such a gap could in theory completely change – the lower scoring kids are actually pretty good, while the better performing kids are actually exceeding the expectations because they take supplemental classes.

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