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Topic: Math Was Never Neutral.
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Math Was Never Neutral.
Posted: Oct 31, 2017 3:36 PM
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From Medium, Sunday, Octboer 29, 2017. SEE
Math Was Never Neutral.

By Jose Vilson

Recently, professor and mathematics educator Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez
became a center of
controversy when right-wing sites wrote pieces about her scholarship
provocation to the
mathematics community (I'm not linking those). Essentially, she
believes - and rightly so - that
mathematics pedagogy privileges whiteness. The swamp converged onto
her e-mail and social
media. Most of the retorts pull from the alt-right playbook, calling
her "girl"  / "honey" and
telling her to "speak English."  For the purposes of my sanity, I'd
like to hone in on two

1. mathematics is either neutral from issues of race, class, and gender and
2. we don't need to worry about race because the word "algebra" 
is Arabic, so whiteness isn't at
the center

[Side note, but not really: it's worth noting that plenty of
organizations have come out with
statements in support of Gutierrez in her scholarship. We also need
to outright rebuke racist,
sexist, classist, and xenophobic attacks on her person, as we can't
separate the person and the work she does insofar as the insults and
yellow journalism are concerned. Let's please address both.]

It's important for us as a country to recognize the benign ways we
approach teaching stories as a
whole. As youth, we're indoctrinated with histories and pedagogies
that suggest that the teacher
and this country has it all figured out. Students in this framework
are simply recipients of our
didactic largesse. Over time, our society expects to complicate the
storytelling by complicating
narratives and opening the fissures of conflict.

As adults ween students off the security blanket that is our
curriculum, we have a depreciating
sense of what they ought to do with this knowledge. Should they
challenge the framework we've
offered to build a better world around us or should we allow
misconceptions to flourish to
maintain the status quo? The answers to this question are complicated
and not as bifurcated as our current zeitgeist suggests.

But what's true, even before we choose a path, is that too many of us
come to these complicated
truths later in our development. As we understand that the same kid
who could not tell a lie about a cherry tree also became our first
president and most powerful slave owner in the country, we can also
understand that the maths we divulge to our students also have
explicit and implicit messages from foundation to delivery.
Pythagoras (and the team who took on the moniker), Eratosthenes,
and Roman numerals come into our consciousness before the Mayans and
the Egyptians. We don't
learn of Ada Lovelace and Katherine Johnson unless we specialize in
the fields of computer science and astronomy, respectively. The life
of Benjamin Banneker is often reduced to a simple
scientist, as if he didn't use his post to rebuke founding father
Thomas Jefferson's racist theories on the enslaved.

And while it's true that the word algebra comes from a Persian
scholar named Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, how does that square
with the ways we ostracize children of color from our
curriculum? We know how harmful "Asians are good at math"  can be
both anecdotally and
through research, but we don't stop to think how math as a subject
still centers whiteness as a
marker for success. We marvel at black kids achieving high scores on
standardized tests, and
distort "by any means necessary"  to include oppressive methods by
which schools arrive at their
test scores. We love films like Stand and Deliver, but we don't
recognize how the students'
ancestors had a beautiful rendition of math that perfectly
synchronized calendars with the rest of
the solar system.

These concepts aren't foreign, but the United States of America's
rendition of math makes
academic attainment and achievement foreign for so many of our students.

Math was never neutral. Math as a subject area is a reflection of the
values and stories propagated by a given educational system's
architects. If the architects truly valued marginalized peoples'
stories, we would have seen these elements early on in all of our
children's textbooks and digital
tools. We wouldn't have to argue whether algebra II needs to be
taught as a gatekeeper for STEM fields because everyone would have
equitable access to the curriculum and students could make a
fairer choice on their own.

Indeed, most of the pejoratives thrown at Gutierrez prove her point.
One wouldn't need to disagree by telling her to go to another
country, belittle this professor with "honey,"  or insult her with
reverse racism charges. The more these folks disagree by attacking
her person, the more these
folks send a message about their discomfort with a person of color
having any say about the way math gets taught. In other words, math
as a neutral subject is a lie, and the folks who perpetrate
the myth lie for their comfort. Math has often centered the success
of straight white men and those who believe in their schema.

Surely, we have a few solutions to this, including diversifying the
teaching profession and
including more than white dudes in our math. We can also raise the
status of teaching as a
profession because teacher pay is a feminist issue given how many
women we have in this work.
But on a foundational level, we would do well to recognize that the
incremental changes we seek
to make for students aren't just focused on gaps in standardized test
scores and resources, but what our society gleans from them. Our
ideas of success are centered on colleges that don't create
welcoming environments for students of color and careers with bosses
that won't hire us.

If we actually did the math, we'd see how the outcomes matters as
much as the incomes, and our
incomes are stratified along race and gender lines. We don't believe
that black and brown children are capable and brilliant in their own
mathematics, and hold them to standards unaligned with our country's
standards for themselves. We don't value our children as full human
beings. We also
have such low expectations of adults and children we call high
achievers that we've obfuscated
high-achieving with full humanity, as if a perfect storm of
privileges didn't usher us into the
maelstrom that is 2017. As a middle school educator, I hope the
children have better solutions for the world than my generation and
previous generations do not.

Solidarity with you, Dr. Gutierrez.

Jerry P. Becker
Department of Curriculum & Instruction
College of Education and Human Services
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
625 Wham Drive / MC 4610
Carbondale, Illinois 62901

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