Manufacturing Management: Politically Correct Math?

Aug. 1, 2005
Mathematics takes work to master.

Remember multiplication tables? Then came algebra and solid geometry, trig and all the rest of that most difficult but most helpful discipline? It's called math, or was, and it's the basic language of modern manufacturing. It starts with arithmetic and eventually you master it so well you can design machinery, computers, factories, rockets, cars, and all the rest of what we call modern industrial life.

You know that. I know that. Your competitors know that. Your kids, however, may not know that and may be learning that the basic language of science and engineering is "an oppressive tool of the West" and only one of many, equally valuable ways of "mathematical thinking."

Today's secondary students may be studying the mathematical thinking of other peoples like the Maori, the Bantu, the Papuans of New Guinea and the pre-Columbian cultures of Central and Southern America instead of just the rigors of basic arithmetic. I kid you not. It's called "ethnomathematics" and it suggests that math is not really a "neutral" topic at all, but needs to be taught with special attention to race, gender and ethnicity.

As cited in a recent commentary in the The Wall Street Journal by Diane Ravitch, a historian of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, there's even a new ethnomathematics book, Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers (Eric Gutstein, Rethinking Schools Ltd., March 2005). Along with many similar predecessor books, it addresses topics such as "

Sweatshop Accounting," "Home Buying While Brown or Black," and other aspects of racial prejudice, gender and cultural backgrounds. The idea is to teach mathematics in ways that "advance social justice."

Now I am all in favor of learning all about other cultures and their histories. In fact it's one of my favorite subjects. But, that discipline is rightly called cultural anthropology. Mixing it in with mathematics makes for diluted knowledge in both. What is the point of saying modern mathematics is an expression of the oppressive Western World? Why dilute one of the most important tools a young person can develop in life with this politically correct nonsense?

Mathematics is basic and, yes, for many young people (and not-so-young) it is difficult, intimidating, and for not a few, just too much. Not everyone is going to develop an appreciation of Pythagoras, Gauss or Von Neumann. But, everyone needs to know the basics and deserves a fair chance to learn exactly that—without wondering how these basics may have led to the enslavement or murder of their ancestors.

It all begs the question: what is wrong with straightforward teaching about a subject that is as universal and international as can be? Why add an ideological agenda to a subject that offers marketable skills to all? Why burden young people with the arguments of politicians and political scientists when they are supposed to be learning how to cipher and calculate and compete?

True, there have been waves of weird education theory in American life before. We've tried all kinds of ways to interest kids in the difficult subject of mathematics. We've tried contests, no grades, self-esteem approaches that ignore the topic all together and games. We've tried threats of failure and heavy homework, humiliation at the blackboard and after-school coaching. But this is the first time, I believe, that we've demonized the topic. Do other countries suggest that modern math is a tool of the oppressive West?

Various education groups like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), of which august group I was once a member, sponsor much of this nonsense. In all of these strange approaches there seems to be one fact left largely unattended.

Mathematics takes work to master. It is tough. It takes time and dedication and not everyone is going to do well with it. That's no sin. But, to fake it by offering alternative credits in cultural anthropology so that all the students can think they are masters of math when in fact they couldn't balance a checkbook is a crime.

Math is not black, white or brown. It is not male or female, rich or poor. It is the language of precision and it brings the power of logical thinking to everyone who has been taught well. Mushing it up with a lot of sociological claptrap does a terrible disservice to any kid of any background.

Many of the youngest engineers; technicians and scientists in this country were not born here or in Europe. They are from China, India, Iran and other parts of the world. I would bet a large amount of wampum that they did not study ethnomathematics in their homelands. Some of these new citizens are probably working in your factories. Maybe you are one of them. If so, please meet with your children's teachers. They may be getting a very strange message about mathematics. They need your help.

George Weimer
[email protected]

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