Mathematics Is Not 'White'

This is getting ridiculous.

The other day, I read how a math education professor claims that the traditional math curriculum is "white."  I visited her university page to examine her C.V., along with the titles of papers she has published in obscure academic journals no serious person would bother to disassemble.  I discovered that her blossoming career seems hell-bent on challenging classic mathematics as bigoted because – gasp – it heralds such marvelous discoveries of the past two millennia such as the Pythagorean Theorem and the irrational (sic) π, codified by Greeks.  I know that Chinese discoveries of these same truths predate the Greeks, but most Westerners have shallow knowledge of that history.  No matter: Teaching these wonderful human discoveries, according to our lady professor, is "white."  I never knew math cared about your skin pigmentation.  

I'm not shocked by this woman's irritating polemic.  I saw this coming.  I have been in secondary education for over thirty years, and when I started my journey, I was required as part of my master's degree from City College of N.Y. to endure a basket of "education" classes.  A few were dedicated to math instruction in the hardened high schools, and these happily addressed real problems I routinely encountered in my Morris H.S. (near Yankee Stadium) in a devastated quarter of the South Bronx.

But most of the other required education classes I took were silly.  My colleagues in the program agreed.  It was difficult accepting grandiose theories promoted by tenured and crusty professors who themselves had spent marginal time in classrooms with real kids before they escaped to a university education department post to evade the unruly mess.  For two years, every Tuesday and Thursday evening, for two hours, these professors feigned to instruct those of us who daily were front-line in this mangled field.

Math is not always easy for me, and I daresay it will never always be easy for anyone who ventures there.  Yet, of the many studies we rightfully include in a liberal arts curriculum, math generously rewards perseverance (we call it grit) and even humility – it rewards the courage to make mistakes and learn and grow from those errors while not blaming anything or anyone else when we fall short.

Mathematics is full of phenomenal problems, and the joy one feels after struggling and reaching a correct answer is dizzying.  It motivates us to strive again.  One of the modest beauties of this subject is how often a correct solution to a problem is discovered by a different route.  How many different proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem do you imagine have been found?  (More than you guess.)  This is the kind of diversity we should celebrate!  

Adding to the educational mess our lady professor's views try to excuse, now we have the ludicrous decision by credentialed "experts" to amend requisites to becoming certified.  Recently, the NYC Board of Regents decided to loosen the certification process for new teachers, since not enough of their P.C. diversity quota were passing these qualifying tests.  Are we to believe that adults choosing the noble profession of teaching who cannot read, write, speak, or calculate to an established rigorous level (a level any parent expects) should be granted exemptions owing to some diversity goal?  Can't jump over the bar?  Let's lower it, then!  Problem solved.  

We have seen the consequences of such P.C. madness in other professions.  Just consider one example outside education: firefighters are expected to climb four flights of stairs carrying a heavy load of nasty, necessary rescue gear in a specific and short time limit.  What to do if an applicant for this heroic job cannot?  Most of us would say, "Sorry.  You don't pass."  Would our lady professor argue that the firefighter test is  "white"?  Or would she concede that fire doesn't care about your race or gender or religion?  It just burns, maims, and kills indiscriminately.

Here in my new teaching adventure in China, I don't encounter this P.C. nonsense.  Concerned parents approach me at conferences and other social occasions and first inquire what their child might do to improve.  They don't point an accusing finger at me, or at my math test questions, and they certainly don't claim that the subject is racist.  Indeed, in my long experience teaching international students, Chinese students are often the most determined and aggressive to succeed.  Where other students might devote 20 minutes to homework and give up when the going gets tough, these Chinese kids will not give up until it is all done.  Too clever by half, when stumped, they seek out older students for help.  

If we want to repair the many damages inflicted on the USA during the past generation, one place to start is math education.  Mathematics is a human devotion and cares not about any of the popular identity grievances.

I will grant that our lady math education professor is passionate, but I insist that she is grossly misguided.  Instead of blaming the difficulty of math on race, or culture, or gender, she ought to encourage her teachers in training to resolutely challenge every student to knuckle down and strive to learn as much math as he can – and watch them marvel afterward as many doors open widely to their dreams.

Rick Swenson is teaching I.B. math in China these days.  Some of his adventures are posted in his blog Dancing with the Dragon.