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What Deep Social Change Underlies the War on Math?

Photo credit: Roman Mager via Unsplash.

Citing a recent article in the journal Urban Education aimed at “healing practices through the use of Social Justice Mathematics,” education watchdog Joanne Jacobs notes a trend in California schools toward turning math class into a soap opera: 

… Another problem read: “I have US$100. I owe 1/4 of my money to my mom, 2/5 to my grandmother, and 4/10 to my brother. Do I have enough money to pay everyone back? How much money should each person get?”

After students calculate that this woman owes more money than she has, they watch a video of a single mom struggling to make ends meet. They are then asked questions like, “What are some feelings that you are having when watching this video?” and “She works 40 hours a week and still struggles for food. What is your reaction around that?”


Common sense would suggest that the lesson identified by the article’s author, Kari Kokka, a mathematics education professor at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas, would lead students away from seeing math as a solution to problems. Math does not suddenly cause money to appear — but everyone knows that anyhow. So why bother with math? 

Another Kind of Problem

Jacobs suggests a different type of problem to help students learn to think about numbers in a useful way:

Let’s say a job offers a low hourly wage and a share of the tip jar. If the wage is X, you work a four-hour shift, there’s typically Y dollars in tips and you have four co-workers … 


Assuming equal shares when the jar is tipped, if the figures are inserted, what is the true take-home pay for that day? How could it be expressed as an equation? Such a problem encourages students to see math as offering insight for decision-making rather than depression.

Or how about: Seven students agree to share two pizzas after the game. How might the pizzas be cut so as to give each student an equal share, making as few slices as possible? Give the circumference degrees.

It’s worth asking why practical numerical insight isn’t seen in the education industry today as closer to what a student needs from the study of math. Apparently, in bellwether California, social justice math is now the trend:

The War on Math Has Been Going on for Years

A classical way of helping people worldwide perfect their abstract thinking skills has been subjected to much recent politicking. In a 2017 anthology for math teachers, math education professor Rochelle Gutierrez was telling teachers that

“On many levels, mathematics itself operates as Whiteness. Who gets credit for doing and developing mathematics, who is capable in mathematics, and who is seen as part of the mathematical community is generally viewed as White,” Gutierrez argued.

Gutierrez also worries that algebra and geometry perpetuate privilege, fretting that “curricula emphasizing terms like Pythagorean theorem and pi perpetuate a perception that mathematics was largely developed by Greeks and other Europeans.” 


Of course, the Pythagorean theorem and pi are fundamental mathematical principles. They were known to various ancient cultures but the Greeks, famously, developed a habit of formulating ideas in an easily transmissible way. That is why so many words for abstract ideas used in many languages today have Greek roots. Making that history into a problem doesn’t help students learn the math. 

Incidentally, a number of words in mathematics have Arab language roots, including algebra, algorithm, cipher, average, azimuth, cube, zenith, and zero, because the Arabs had their own golden age of mathematics from roughly the eighth century to the thirteenth centuries AD. Are these concepts somehow more (or less) useful because they feature Arab root words? Don’t students need to learn the basic principles anyway?

Science Finds No Foothold in a World of Private Truth

Just what underlies the war on math? Why do states like California, with a poor record for math scores anyway, want to move away from explicitly teaching math? Could it have something to do with ours being an age of private, not public truth? If so, it is spreading to science now too.

Consider the gender wars, for example, A number of well-known biologists — Richard Dawkins, Colin Wright, and Jerry Coyne, for example — have expressed dismay at the new notion that male and female are not fixed categories in the human being. True, some life forms are fluid in these matters but primate mammals including us humans are not fluid. But, however biologically unlikely fluidity may be for humans, it suits the idea of private truth superseding public facts. What you feel is true about yourself in your own skin must be acknowledged over against public evidence from science. Or math.

The problem is that science and math took hold in ages of public truth. Neither can survive private truth for long. Nor can they thrive amid merely partisan truth (“mathematics itself operates as Whiteness”). If the wars against these disciplines succeed, we can anticipate a war on literacy as well. After all, why should literacy be assumed to be better than illiteracy if private truth favors illiteracy?

We have often been told that the role of the teacher must change dramatically in these times. Perhaps we have only begun to see what that really means: that the teacher’s purpose is simply to empower the student’s vision of what is true.

Cross-posted at Mind Matters News.