By Dr. Harold A. Black
On May 3rd Steve Hunley had an excellent editorial on “racist” math. I want to add to the discussion.
Growing up in Atlanta’s segregated schools, I knew there was a cultural divide although I never had a conversation with a white person until I went to the University of Georgia. Every textbook from first grade until 12th had some white school’s name in it. There were references to things that just didn’t seem plausible and references to others that I simply rejected. We were forced to study Georgia history that we could not relate to and observe Confederate Memorial Day. The state’s racist flag flew outside our school. Basically we adapted. My English teacher supplemented to what the state dictated the works of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Richard Wright and Countee Cullen. My history teacher taught us about Crispus Attucks, the 54th Massachusetts, the Buffalo soldiers, the Battle of New Orleans, San Juan Hill, the Harlem Hellcats and the Tuskegee Airmen. But we had no cultural instruction in math. For us, math was not culture bound and those of us who took standardized tests invariably scored higher on math than on social studies and English. So imagine my surprise when I learned that math reflected “whiteness” and places like Seattle, Minnesota, California, North Carolina and Virginia were moving to teach “woke”math described as using a social justice framework to give students a conceptual understanding of the subject. An example given was that of how “average” might be misleading. Students in a middle school had the concept illustrated by being told that although the income in their neighborhood was at the poverty level, the average income in their city was high. Times have changed. I remember that one of my teachers illustrated “average” by explaining how a six-foot tall man could drown in a pool that averaged four feet deep. But woke math goes beyond conceptual thinking. In California, 3rd graders in math classes are lectured on transgenderism and racism. In another school, the teacher talks about privilege and equated white, straight and Christian as oppressors. In Seattle, the curricula instructs teachers at the grade school level to eliminate “preconceived biases” regarding what is the right answer. Teachers are encouraged to not mark incorrect answers as incorrect but rather have students defend their answers. I can imagine the impact on a student of having to defend a wrong answer. This does not seem to be a productive way to learn math. Saying that minority kids, excluding Asians, can’t learn math ignores one fact: white kids math proficiency is among the lowest in the world. One of my closest friends teaches math and physics in a big city high school. His reaction to woke math was “what do I tell my white students who are struggling”?
Another tenet of woke math is to eliminate the showing of work and insisting on the correct way of solving a problem. Here I could not agree more. My brother was never asked to show his work in math because that would have confused him. If the teacher asked the question, he would answer it. Ask him to show his work? What work? His best friend from the first grade also had an affinity for math and earned a PhD in it. He took over his father’s electric company (blacks were not allowed in the union) because he made more money wiring houses than being a math professor. I guess he and my brother were Algebros. When I came along, my algebra teacher told my father, who was teaching biology, “Harold would make better grades if he stopped trying to solve the problems his own way.” Dad said “Can you solve the problems like you are taught?” I answered “yes”. Dad then said “well do it his way and then when you get home, do it your way – and show me the results.” Little did I know that by doing it my own way, I got smarter. In one of my favorite books, “Limitless Minds” by Prof. Jo Boaler, she explains how traditional math teaching actually inhibits learning and letting students solve problems their own way increase their neutral passageways.
Woke math is not intended to aid in students’ learning. Rather it simply provides an excuse for the school systems to keep on not educating our children. Tests of teachers in Georgia and Florida have shown that most grade school math teachers cannot pass basic proficiency exams in the subject they teach. No wonder they want to talk about “racism” instead.
What is disturbing is that the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is one of the largest supporters of woke math instruction. Their foundation funded an organization whose book “Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction” shows how math “is used to uphold capitalist, imperialist and racist views”. The book also encourages teachers to honor “incorrect problem-solving” strategies and that white supremacism is the cause of minority academic underachievement.
However, math is multicultural. We use Arabic numerals which the Arabs got from India. If math were white-centric we would be using Roman numerals instead (now what is CCCIV x CCXIX?). If math is used as a sign of white supremacy then why did the Asians adopt it and excel in it?
I would not want any scientist to use a math system where an approximate answer was good enough. Heaven forbid, if civil engineers were trained that way we would really have an infrastructure problem. Also, I’m sure NASA and its astronauts were glad that the women of “Hidden Figures” were not versed in woke math.