Seattle’s public school district plans to introduce ethnic studies to all disciplines taught to K-12 students. The district’s proposed Math Ethnic Studies Framework seeks to “rehumanize math” and engage students from ethnic minorities. Yet the postmodern approach in the document threatens to undermine the truth of math by pairing it with Western “oppression” and encouraging students to ask “What is Right? Says Who?”
The framework makes unwarranted and unnecessary assumptions about mathematics.
For instance, the document sets forth four themes, the first of which claims that “mathematical theory and application is rooted in the ancient histories of people and empires of color” (emphasis original). If the curriculum is followed rightly, students will be able to “create counter narratives about the origins of mathematical knowledge” and “see the mathematical value in making mistakes both as individuals and as a community.”
In other words, this “educational” document emphasizes getting minority students to “identify” with math over teaching them mathematical truths. Not only does the framework prioritize teaching students the “value in making mistakes” but it also presents as an essential question “What does it mean to do math?” and the related questions, “How important is it to be Right? What is Right? Says Who?”
There is indeed value in making mistakes — but in order to take a key lesson from mistakes, students must understand that they are mistakes. The postmodern approach of this curriculum — getting students to deconstruct what it means to be right and getting them to emphasize ethnic identity over the basic truths of math — is detrimental to that effort.
As for the claim that math is “rooted in the ancient histories of people and empires of color,” that is partially true. Mathematics has developed to a limited degree in all human cultures, and both Indian and Arabic contributions to mathematics are important to understand. But Western thinkers like the Ancient Greek pioneer Pythagoras were also fundamental to math. The point of math is not to parse which ethnic group made which discovery but to incorporate the accumulated knowledge and apply it.
The most developed system of mathematics is Western, and non-Westerners would do well to learn from and then build on Western mathematics, rather than attempting to reject Western innovations in search of a “pure math” untainted by the “oppression” and “appropriation” of the West. Yet this Seattle framework attempts to erase or demonize the centuries of Western progress in math.
The framework’s second theme teaches that “Power and oppression, as defined by ethnic studies, are the ways in which individuals and groups define mathematical knowledge so as to see ‘Western’ mathematics as the only legitimate expression of mathematical identity and intelligence. This definition of legitimacy is then used to disenfranchise people and communities of color. This erases the historical contributions of people and communities of color.”
Under a curriculum developed from this framework, students will be able to “analyze the ways in which ancient mathematical knowledge has been appropriated by Western culture.” They will also be able to “identify how math has been and continues to be used to oppress and marginalize people and communities of color,” and to “critique systems of power that deny access to mathematical knowledge to people and communities of color.”
The framework argues that students should be taught “the inherent inequities of the standardized testing system used to oppress and marginalize people and communities of color.” Standardized testing is rightly controversial, but Seattle Public Schools is wrong to suggest it is somehow proven or obvious that standardized testing has “inherent inequities” that are “used to oppress and marginalize” minorities. This sweeping indictment on all math standardized tests is false and unfair.
Yet the “oppression” education goals do not stop with demonizing standardized tests. According to the framework, students will be able to “explain how math has been used to exploit natural resources” — ostensibly contributing to climate change — and they will be able to “explain how math dictates economic oppression.”
While it is true that businesses, governments, and individuals use math to calculate how to use natural resources — including pumping gas into a tank — it is unfair to indict mathematics itself as connected with the abuse of natural resources. It is also unfair to indict math for “economic oppression,” as mathematics is a neutral tool that businesses and government can use to pay employees, tax citizens, distribute handouts, and more — in fair or unfair ways. Yes, math has been used in the service of oppression, but it has also been used in the service of liberation.
In fact, the third theme acknowledges as much. “The history of resistance and liberation, as defined by ethnic studies, is the stories, places, and people who helped liberate people and communities of color using math, engineering, and technology. Access to mathematical knowledge itself is an act of liberation,” the document states.
Yet mathematical knowledge is only a tool of liberation if it is knowledge rather than twisted propaganda. Only accurate mathematics can empower people to understand technology and other key aspects of the world around us. So far as the deconstruction narrative distracts students from pursuing truth in mathematics, it actually undermines the goal of empowering students of color.
The Seattle Public Schools likely has the best of intentions with this overtly political and arguably dangerous math curriculum. The district even put in some interesting tidbits about the “beauty” of math that really should interest students in mathematics.
At the end of the day, however, mathematics is about truth and accurate thinking, not about race or ethnicity. Emphasizing ethnicity and a narrative of “oppression” and “liberation” in math is wrongheaded and self-defeating.
The narrative of Western oppression poses a serious threat to various subjects in education. For instance, a student in South Africa rejected science in favor of African “black magic.”
Western history is complicated. While European empires did enslave and mistreat indigenous peoples, they also introduced superior forms of math, science, weaponry, medicine, and more. The indigenous peoples were not themselves guiltless, either. Many had long practiced human sacrifice, slavery, and other detestable practices.
The constant haranguing of “woke” scholars seeking to demonize the Western ingenuity behind modern prosperity is shrill and ultimately a threat to that very prosperity. Let students study math, and don’t let math history become dominated by social justice attempts to erase the efforts of the West. It matters far more whether or not students can do basic arithmetic than whether or not they can spout social justice slogans about Western “oppression.”
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.