The Wall Street Journal, in an article titled “Ethnomathematics” (June, 20, 2005, available at this link, although registration may be required) tells us of the transformation of mathematics from a universal language and tool for understanding and problem-solving to a “tool to advance social justice.”
In a comparison of a 1973 algebra textbook and a 1998 “contemporary mathematics” textbook, Williamson Evers and Paul Clopton found a dramatic change in topics. In the 1973 book, for example, the index for the letter “F” included “factors, factoring, fallacies, finite decimal, finite set, formulas, fractions, and functions.” In the 1998 book, the index listed “families (in poverty data), fast food nutrition data, fat in fast food, feasibility study, feeding tours, ferris wheel, fish, fishing, flags, flight, floor plan, flower beds, food, football, Ford Mustang, franchises, and fund-raising carnival.”
Now mathematics is being nudged into a specifically political direction by educators who call themselves “critical theorists.” They advocate using mathematics as a tool to advance social justice. Social justice math relies on political and cultural relevance to guide math instruction. One of its precepts is “ethnomathematics,” that is, the belief that different cultures have evolved different ways of using mathematics, and that students will learn best if taught in the ways that relate to their ancestral culture.
Another topic, drawn directly from ethnomathematics, is “Chicanos Have Math in Their Blood.” Others include “The Transnational Capital Auction,” “Multicultural Math,” and “Home Buying While Brown or Black.” Units of study include racial profiling, the war in Iraq, corporate control of the media, and environmental racism.
It seems terribly old-fashioned to point out that the countries that regularly beat our students in international tests of mathematics do not use the subject to steer students into political action. They teach them instead that mathematics is a universal language that is as relevant and meaningful in Tokyo as it is in Paris, Nairobi and Chicago. The students who learn this universal language well will be the builders and shapers of technology in the 21st century. The students in American classes who fall prey to the political designs of their teachers and professors will not.
If you do not want your children to attend schools where this type of mathematics is taught, you may not have much choice if your family is of modest means. If you want to send your children to a schools where meaningful, traditional mathematics is taught, you may not be able to because of the near-monopoly that government has on schools. It is time to end the government’s monopoly on education and bring meaningful schools choice to parents. Parents who are happy with the type of education the government is presently providing will still have that available for their children, if that is what they want.