Ethnomathematics

Saturday, July 30, 2005

It seems our math educators no longer believe in the beauty and power of the principles of mathematics. They are continually in search of a fix that will make math easy, relevant, fun, and even politically relevant. In 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics issued standards that disparaged such basic skills as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division because they could be easily performed on a calculator. The council preferred real-life problem solving, using everyday situations. Attempts to solve problems without basic skills caused some critics, especially professional mathematicians, to deride the standards as “fuzzy math” or “rainforest algebra.” (In response to this outcry, the NCTM issued revised standards in 1995 and 2000, restoring computational skills to their rightful place in the curriculum.)

The NCTM standards of 1989 prompted textbook publishers to seek innovative ways to make math fun and easy. Those were the days of innocence in pursuit of relevance. 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. (To see how widespread is this phenomenon, the reader should google the terms “social justice” and “mathematics.”) 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. From this perspective, traditional mathematics—the mathematics taught in universities around the world—is the property of Western civilization and is inexorably linked with the values of the oppressors and conquerors. The culturally attuned teacher will learn about the counting system of the ancient Mayans, ancient Africans, Yu’pik Eskimos, Papua New Guineans, and other “non-mainstream” cultures.

Partisans of social justice mathematics advocate an explicitly political agenda in the classroom. A new textbook, Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers, shows how problem solving, ethnomathematics, and political action can be merged. Among its topics are “Sweatshop Accounting,” with units on poverty, globalization, and the unequal distribution of wealth. 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. The theory behind the book is that “teaching math in a neutral manner is not possible.” Teachers are supposed to vary the teaching of mathematics in relation to their students’ race, sex, ethnicity, and community.

This fusion of political correctness and relevance may be the next big thing to rock mathematics education, appealing as it does to political activists and ethnic chauvinists.

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 twenty-first century. The students in American classes who fall prey to the political designs of their teachers and professors will not.