A young woman in a graduation gown sits by a friend at the University of California in this file pic taken in June 2012. Debate has flared about admissions policies at US colleges amid a claim that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans. Photo: iStock
A young woman in a graduation gown sits by a friend at the University of California in this file photo. Consider how the performance of US students would be affected if classroom time were spent teaching how math is used in 'resistance' rather than how it is used in engineering. Photo: iStock

A consortium of 25 organizations, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has issued a report aimed as a “tool” for educators, titled “A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction: Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction.”

The opening paragraph states that the fundamental issue to be addressed regarding math education is white supremacy:

“The framework for deconstructing racism in mathematics offers essential characteristics of anti-racist math educators and critical approaches to dismantling white supremacy in math classrooms by visibilizing the toxic characteristics of white supremacy culture with respect to math.”

The report identifies various ways in which “white supremacy shows up in math classrooms.” Examples include teaching that mathematics is objective or requiring students to show their work. The authors make no effort to prove their points. They just state them as fact, along with some explanation. Given the novelty of some of their recommendations, they could have been more rigorous.

White supremacy shows up in the classroom when “the focus is on getting the ‘right’ answer.” The report states, “The concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false, and teaching it is even much less so.” Hence, according to the authors, the truth of a mathematical proposition can be subjective, that is, based on personal feelings or opinion, and not objectively grounded on axioms, definitions, and logic.

Professor Sergiu Klainerman, who is a member of the Princeton University Mathematics Department, as well as a member of the National Academy of Science, has responded,

“The idea that focusing on getting the ‘right answer’ is now considered among some self-described progressives a form of bias or racism is offensive and extraordinarily dangerous.” 

White supremacy shows up in the classroom when “students are required to show their work.” The supposed problem here is that “math teachers ask students to show work so that teachers know what students are thinking, but that centers the teacher’s need to understand rather than student learning.” Apparently, the authors believe that understanding what a student is thinking is not beneficial to helping him learn mathematics.

In another direction, teachers should “center ethnomathematics.” This includes several recommendations.

“Recognize the ways that communities of color engage in mathematics and problem-solving in their everyday lives.” Are we to believe that Chinese, Indians and Nigerians use everyday mathematics differently than white people?

“Identify and challenge the ways that math is used to uphold capitalist, imperialist, and racist views.” What does this have to do with learning algebra or geometry? And why is there no reference to math being used to uphold the views of socialism and communism? It was not capitalism that killed more than 100 million people in the 20th century.

“Expose students to examples of people who have used math as resistance. Provide learning opportunities that use math as resistance.” Is mathematics instruction to be curtailed in order to champion revolution? Resistance involves conflicting political ideologies. For it to be studied meaningfully requires an analysis of the ideologies in question, and this would belong in a political science class.

Throughout the document there are both explicit and implicit attacks on white people, often without proof or with a disregard of the facts. For instance, there is the advice to encourage non-white students “to disrupt the disproportionate push-out of people of color in those [STEM] fields.”

Anyone familiar with mathematics, science, or engineering knows that the “push-out” is a fiction. Visit Silicon Valley or just about any mathematically oriented research lab, and check out the representation of Asians.

The whole notion of white supremacy is a canard. Mathematics is a universal subject. Professor Klainerman points this out from a historical perspective:

“For historical reasons, we often discuss contributions to the field of mathematics from the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Chinese, Indians and Arabs and refer to them as distinct entities. They have all contributed through a unique cultural dialogue to the creation of a truly magnificent edifice accessible today to every man and woman on the planet.”

Yet the authors speak of the “the toxic characteristics of white supremacy culture with respect to math.” In Asia, students study the same mathematics as their counterparts in the US, and today are generally outperforming Americans in mathematical areas.

This is especially so in engineering, where China graduates a much higher percentage of engineers than in the US. If there are “toxic characteristics of white supremacy” at play, why are these not adversely affecting Chinese students?

Think of the harm that would be done if the views propounded in this report were to be inflicted on students.

Imagine trying to teach mathematics, physics, or engineering to a high-school or university student who has been indoctrinated with the view that mathematics is not objective. The student might learn formal manipulation of symbols, but he would lack the critical understanding of the universality of those manipulations in a logical context.

Indeed, he very likely would not appreciate the structure of logic, and be ignorant of the basis of rigorous reasoning.

Consider how the performance of US students would be affected if classroom time were spent teaching how math is used in resistance rather than how it is used in engineering, for instance in the design electric circuits or power systems.

The significant waste of time and detriment to learning encouraged in this report is especially harmful to disadvantaged students, who need every minute of meaningful instruction they can get.

This last point is the most disturbing social aspect of the report. Especially in the 20th century, mathematics has provided the avenue for many people to escape the lower economic strata, not only emerging into the middle and upper classes, but also using their talents to benefit society.

The authors of this report would make that escape more difficult by hampering serious instruction, providing erroneous views of mathematics, and sowing racial division in a subject that is universal to humankind.

Edward R Dougherty

Edward Dougherty is distinguished professor of engineering at Texas A&M University.