June 9, 2005

Are you math teachers sure you're trying hard enough...

To indoctrinate your students?

Well, now really, let's think about this. I agree that this is ridiculously politically slanted in one direction. But if we're going to use "story problems," why shouldn't we demonstrate how useful math is in analyzing social and political matters?

And shouldn't teaching math have the end of preparing students to function competently as citizens, voters, and consumers of news media? I'm thinking of the issues raised in the very cool book "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper."

UPDATE: More on teaching math here.

IN THE COMMENTS: Lots of actual right-wing math story problems!


Barry Kearns said...

Oh, don't get me wrong... I'm not opposed to teaching the ability to apply mathematics to political or real-world examples. I am, however, fundamentally opposed to using math as a subject for indoctrinating students into a particular world-view. Story problems (that are supposed to be teaching children basic math facts) containing unnecessary political activism aren't a positive step in my opinion... and much less so when they throw out "facts" in the stroy problem formulation that are thinly-disguised activist opinions.

I'm a huge fan of John Allen Paulos, but my kids aren't forced to attend classes taught using the politically-charged examples and required to get the "right" answer framed through the lens of "social justice". John's work is largely targeted at adults, where political and social-justice issues are certainly fair game IMO. He suggests many useful ways of thinking about the world through the lens of mathematics... but that's the mirror image of what this book proposes.

Paulos uses math to look at the world in new ways. This book aims to start from a pre-disposed vision of a "right and just world", and use mathematics to indoctrinate that vision into students.

School children are a captive audience, and I'm not comfortable with the degree of political activism inherent in the "lesson plans" pointed to by this book.

Sure, make the material relevant and real-world, but do so without putting your personal political agenda all over it... that's what I'm trying to say.

PaulNoonan said...

That's a great book, thank you for mentioning it. I had forgotten about it. In high school my calculus teacher assigned it in one of his advanced classes, and I think it permanently changed the way that I look at the news. I highly recommend it.

Art said...

Given the endorsement blurb on the book's website by a UW Madison Professor, that giant sucking sound you just heard was another five million being pulled from the UW system budget.

Kathleen B. said...

since when is social justice a "leftist agenda"? do conservatives not care about social justice?

and what was so awful about the point about the candy bar hypothetical vs. the sweatshop hypo? that made sense to me. Vektor blog didn't explain (just expected me to "get it" I guess?)

Richard Fagin said...

Not to mention that one of the examples from the liked post shows that using math as a political indoctrination tool can lead to error in the actual use of math.

The relevant part of the liked post reads:

"But if police stop 612 African-American drivers and 423 whites, then there is a much stronger case.

The explanation lies in mathematics: In an area where only 30 percent of the drivers are black, it is virtually impossible for almost 60 percent of more than 1,000 people stopped randomly by the police to be black."

What is the error in the foregoing? It is the statement that the police randomly stop people. So, no, in the foregoing example, the "explanation" does not lie in the mathematics at all, but in the hypothesis used to explain the data. What is really wrong about statements like the foregoing is that there is no clear demarcation between the assumptions and the mathematical process used. In essence, the author starts with an answer (blacks are disproportionately and therefore wrongfully stopped by the police), and makes a statement about data in support without identifying what assumptions are needed to cause the analysis to support the answer.

Using a social justice basis to teach math is a fundamentally unsound idea, because social justice itself is entirely a subjective value judgement that is unique to every individual. Analyzed data can be used to support argument in favor of one's poitical position, but the underlying mathematical analysis itself, on the other hand, cannot be subjective. The math procedures used must be objective, concise and repeatble from user to user.

Just what the world needs - more high school graduates that "know" about racial profiling to a mathematical certainty, but who can't calculate how may appliances can be plugged into the same circuit before the breaker pops, or can't halve or double a printed recipe. As John Stossel says, "Gimme a break!"

Mark said...

Kathleen, here are some alternate questions. See if you get it now.

Let's say 50% of U.S. voters are Democrats and 50% are Republican. If all Democrats have an IQ of 80 and all Republicans have an IQ of 120, what is the average IQ of voters.

Let's say 40% of Amnesty International donors are consumers of child porn, another 10% are rapists, and yet another 30% of AI donors are tax cheats. If all of these crimes are felonies, what percentage of AI donors are felons?

Or just change "Walmart" in the sweatshop example to "Ben & Jerry's"

Bruce Hayden said...


Probably, none of the above for your last question - you don't know the overlap of child porn rapist who also cheat on their taxes. Yes, the way you phrased the question, the answer is probably 80%, but proper statistics would look at the overlap.

As to the driving while colored question, the additional context that is missing, besides the ratio of those driving by, is the demographic makeup of those, such as age, sex, along with race. Also, what would be quite interesting to me would be to control by race of the cop pulling them over.

Because the reality, seems to be that the ratio is not all that different if a cop of color pulls them over versus one of pallor. If accurate, does this mean that the cops of color are just as racist? Or just as smart?

Bruce Hayden said...

The original article stems apparetly from Mike Rosen's radio show. Mike is a conservative talk show host on the 50,000 watt KOA station in Denver, and is popular enough that he bumps Rush from live to delayed broadcast - yet, apparently has no interest in going national.

Rosen has an uncanny knack of decomposing liberal orthodoxy. His use of logic to destroy his liberal callers is, frankly, almost scary. If only I could be as articulate and as logical, I would be happy with my lot in life.

Charlie (Colorado) said...

"since when is social justice a "leftist agenda"?

It's not. But "social justice" as a term has been defined by the left to mean a leftist agenda.

Social justice to me means equal rights, including a universal right to bear arms and a universal flat-fee tax (not "flat tax" as in "flat rate", a flat fixed fee for service.)

Something tells me that's not what you mean.

Jacob said...

This reminds me of a quote from Britain's classic sitcom Yes Minister:

Jim Hacker: "Math has become politicized: If it costs 5 billion pounds a year to maintain Britain's nuclear defences and 75 pounds a year to feed a starving African child, how many African children can be saved from starvation if the Ministry of Defence abandoned nuclear weapons?"

Sir Humphrey: "That's easy: none. They'd spend it all on conventional weapons."

Bruce Hayden said...

I find this whole thing extremely troubling. First, they are using mathematics to indoctrinate impressionable children in ultra-left wing philosophy - at tax payer expense. Bad enough that they also do this with the "softer" classes.

Secondly, they are laying on the guilt, etc., that goes along with this, on kids who are much too young to worry about this sort of thing. There may be a time to acquint them with the social injustices in the world, but surely at least lower and middle school is much too early. Probably even high school. Now college...

Also, the point of mathematics training should not be to further indoctrination in a specific world view, but rather in, well, mathematical training.

The article mentions changing a story problem from a basic consumer question that the kids might be able to translate into their own lives into one on cheap exploitative foreign labor - which, of course, has no connection with their own lives. The proponent justifies this by noting that the original pushes consumerism. Well, guess what, kids are consumers long before they are advocates for social change.

Bruce Hayden said...

Finally (for awhile), this article ties in somewhat to the article today in the WSJ by Milton Friedman on school vouchers. Dr. Friedman points out that he predicted the failures we are now seeing in public education 50 years ago when first suggesting vouchers.

The problem, at a basic level, is that public education is a public supported and enforced monopoly. The result is expected, though not pleasant (as we are seeing with this drive to redefine mathematics education).

Because it is a monopoly, there is not the feedback that you get with competition (which is why my daughter goes to private school). The type of feedback that is missing is that which is relatively immediate and that ties educational achievement to policy and resources.

Publically funded and mandated monopolies are worse than private monopolies because ultimately they acquire numerous conflicting goals that have no real connection with what most of us believe their mission should be.

So, we have public education tasked with taking care of disabled who should be otherwise taken care of. Taking care of disruptive kids who should again be elsewhere. Tasked with sex education and handing out condoms.

Adding to this all, public monopolies are inevitably taken over by those with the biggest stake. In the case of public utilities, this is the utility companies. In public education, this is the education establishment, most notably the teachers and their unions. Eventually, these public monopolies ultimately serve the ends of those who have naturally taken them over, instead of the ultimate consumers of their goods, as was originally envisioned. Thus, the security and renumeration of teachers inevitably take priority over the welfare of those the education establishment was supposed to help - the kids.

The problem is that this sort of thing is both predictable and nie inevitable. No matter how noble the original intentions, almost always, those who are most closely involved with a public monopoly capture it - as, they obviously have here.

Mark said...

A question about kids buying a candy bar is so dull that it's just a math question with the background soon forgotten. A kid quizzed about racially-based cop stop statistics might wonder how the cops see a driver's race at night as they speed by. Or note as they ride with their folks that it's actually quite hard to discern race in another car any time of day unless the other car is close.

Does this lead to awkward questions of the teacher and eventual loss of the teacher's credibility? Is that really a good thing? Maybe it's better to stick with boring candy bars.

Bruce Hayden said...

The answer to how cops tell race at night is by the cars they drive. A white tricked out Escalade with blacked out windows driving through the hood late at night is probably not being driven by a white middle aged executive and his (or her) spouse. But then, the white middle aged executive probably isn't going to engage in drive by's either.

So, probably better to term it Driving a Banger-mobile, rather than Driving While Black (or Hispanic, etc.)

Not that there isn't a real problem here. A couple of years ago in Denver, a young lawyer of color was complaining about how often he was pulled over driving his BMW. Seems that the cops saw a Black driving that car and thought drug dealer.

But I will still contend that a large percentage of the alleged pulling over of minorities is really good policing, concentrating on cars, for example, that are highly likely to belong to gang members.

Indeed, I find it humorous that they could think that they can trick out their cars as they do, without making themselves obvious.

Sloanasaurus said...

"Social Justice" is a term used today that is synonomous with the old term Socialism. I would argue that it means more than traditional socialism in that today's "social justice" it includes a kind of "cultural socialism" as well as economic socialism. When people speak of social justice (especially those on the left) they mean cultural and social equality.

Cultural and social equality on its face sounds like a good thing? Unfortunately, it ultimately requires the complete suppression of freedom, a.k.a. totalitarianism, to accomplish.

Kathleen B. said...

I kind-of think that the idea that sweatshop labor isn't connected to American kids' lives is the whole point.

And I do agree that the Wal-mart hypothetical was definitely wrong; it would only be ok (maybe) if the numbers were truly accruate, with a citation to prove it. Maybe even then it isn't worth the hassle.

As for your other "counter examples" Mark, I would hope your Amnesty one wouldn't go in since it is poorly written, and unsolvable. As for the IQ one, I guess if you feel like being concerned about sweatshop labor is consistent with calling Republicans morons, then that is you. how interesting really.

I guess my biggest problem is the idea that fair working conditions are some sort of "ultra-left wing, radicial idea" that we need to fear our kids being "indoctrinated" with. I guess the conservative movement really is as scary as I believed.

Kathleen B. said...

"Cultural and social equality on its face sounds like a good thing? Unfortunately, it ultimately requires the complete suppression of freedom, a.k.a. totalitarianism, to accomplish."

that is the most depressing thing I have read in a long time. (granted I have been avoiding the news out of Iraq.)

Kathleen B. said...

equal rights, including a universal right to bear arms and a universal flat-fee tax (not "flat tax" as in "flat rate", a flat fixed fee for service.)

fair enough. but do you include the right to drive home from work without getting stopped by the cops?
and sorry, I still don't understand what you mean by "Flat fixed fee" tax.

What is it about current gun control that is oppressing you (or others), and impinging on your equal rights?

Kathy Herrmann said...

I agree with Barry Kearns. Using real-world examples to teach math benefits students.

There's nothing inherently political about mathemathics. What can become political, though, is how people use it to their ends. In a recent article on this subject, inspired by the trail that started with Ann's post, I wrote,

The beauty of math is that, when taught well, it helps children learn to engage in critical thought. The beauty of numbers, and why so many companies key into phrases like “show me the numbers” is because putting things into mathematical terms strips out the politics and anecdotal perceptions of people. At least it does when analytics approach a problem without a hidden agenda. And amazing things happen when you allow yourself to put thing into unagenda’d mathematical terms. One of those is that sometimes you discover what you thought you knew is not the case at all. Sometimes the numbers tell you a different story.

The key to gaining such numerical value, though, is that mathematics needs to be approached without an agenda. In contrast, when you step up to it with one, then you fall consciously or unconsciously fall into a trap of skewing the numbers.

The full post is at http://bigcatchronicles.blogharbor.com/blog/_archives/2005/6/9/924809.html

Mark said...


I actually don't consider my questions appropriate for kids taking math. I wrote them that way as a simple, perhaps crude, aide for an adult to get some perspective.

I don't think anyone is against children being informed about sweatshops. They're against kids being lied to by lefty wankers in math class. That is the point.

Anyway, this will probably backfire. Smart kids will resent being brainwashed by their "math" teachers and become right-wingers. The dumb kids who bought it all will be the left's sloganeering braintrust.

Mark said...

I've been working with physicists and engineers (lots of math) for 20 years. I'd say more than 90% of them are conservative or libertarian. (I hear the non-math disciplines such as Education are similarly lopsided but of the other polarity.)

What am I saying? Well, I just don't think math and lefty logic mix well, and they're going to get a big ass fight when it comes to educating kids in math.

Sloanasaurus said...

"Cultural and social equality on its face sounds like a good thing? Unfortunately, it ultimately requires the complete suppression of freedom, a.k.a. totalitarianism, to accomplish."

I should have said cultural and economic equality. Yikes...get with it.

Sean said...

It's important to remember that for most non-academics, "when I think back on all the c--- I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all." It doesn't much matter what nonsense the teacher is babbling, because most of us remember most of our teachers (even our law professors, sorry!), with bemused contempt. An exception, in my case, would Babette Barton, my tax professor, and Donald Kagan, my history professor, but not too many others.

Drethelin said...

Teaching social justice etc. etc. is all well and good. BUT NOT IN MATH CLASS. The point of MATH CLASS is to teach you MATH. anything else is frippery.

Mark said...

I put Ann's recommendation, "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper" into my Amazon basket. So then up pops an Amazon recommendation for "How to Lie with Statistics." Hmmm.

Speaking of, a Blogger book review section would be nice, Ann. Lately, I've enjoyed a number of books recommended by the bloggers I read.

Girish said...


Here's a question for you:

A 14 year old child in the Honduras can earn $1 a day by working in a Walmart "sweatshop" or 5 cents a day working as a prostitute or rag-picker. How many days would this child have to work as a prostitute or a rag-picker to earn the same amount as if she worked in the Walmart "sweatshop" for 5 days?

I don't mean to belittle your concern for the more unfortunate people in my country (India) and in other poor countries. But you sound like an obviously intelligent woman and your ideas and the ideas of other, undoubtedly well-meaning, people will result in the poor of this world staying in abject and degrading poverty.

I saw a store in NY a couple of months ago which proudly advertised "No sweatshop items here". What was there to be proud of? That you denied some person, living in conditions that you could not imagine, a modicum of dignity? That you denied them the ability to eat two meals a day instead of one?

I know it's impossible to convince people through comments to blog-posts - but, please, bring your intelligence to bear on this: maybe, there's another way to think about sweatshops?

Jeff said...

Here are some math questions from a "right-ward" perspective.

The city has just imposed a hike in minimum wage from $5 to $8 an hour. A fast food store manager can not raise his prices because it would drive his customers to other restaurants outside the city. In order to remain in business (be profitable) he must fire 2 employees for every $1 hike in minimum wage. How many employees does he fire?

A poor family in Cleveland has a food and clothing budget of $300 a month. If a Walmart is built in the neighborhood and the family is able to save 13% on their purchase, how much money do they save by shopping at Walmart?

A recent study found that the three most common factors in determing whether a girl will become a poor woman where; 1) having a child out of wedlock, 2) getting married before 21 and 3) not getting a high school education. In a freshman high school class of 215 girls, these three factors happen to 45% of the girls, how many will likely grow up poor.

Man, this is easy. What a way to spread the idea that actions have consequences (as righties know and lefties don,t).

Mr. I said...

As Althouse asks in the post, "why shouldn't we demonstrate how useful math is in analyzing social and political matters?" I just don't see the harm in bringing in real-world examples to engage students. If it gets the students involved and interested in math, then the example has done its job. One only needs to look at the comments on this blog to see how passionate people become with these inherently leftist or rightist math problems. And that is exactly the point -- if it works here imagine how it can work in the classroom! Kids today are so apathetic when it comes to learning, especially science and math, that these math problems should be an added welcome.

One last point: To all those who seem to have such a critical opinion of teachers teaching "leftist" agendas in their classrooms, if you are so concerned with it why don't you go teach? There is a large need for teachers in this country and your knowledge and balanced views would surely be appreciated. So, before you start to attack teachers for doing their job and looking for ways to engage today's subpar students, walk a mile in their shoes.

Jeff said...

Sorry Ann to post some more "right-ward" math questions again, but this is too much fun.

Recent studies have shown that deep sea oil rigs have become important and rich ocean life habitats. If each oil rig develops a 20-acre habit, how many oil rigs have to be installed to gain a square mile of habit, given that there are 660 acres in a square mile?

If 3 million illegal immigrants cross into the US from the Mexican border and if 0.01 % are Islamic terrorists, how many American lives are at risk if each terrorist can murder 1,000 people?

A turbine windmill farm the size of Kansas would create 3.3 Gigawatts of electricity. If the US needs 21 Gigawatts of electricity, how many states the size of Kansas would be needed to be converted to windmill farms to completely power the US?

Bonus questions:

1) If 10,000 family farms were destroyed in each state as a result of building these windmill farms and if each family had 4 people, how many people would be displaced?

2) If one windmill can decimate 200 birds a year and it takes 20,000,000,000 windmills to generate enough electricity for the US and there are 4 x10EE12 birds in the US, how long before all birds are gone?

Ann Althouse said...

Jeff: Great! I'm trying to think up a problem, based on what Mr. I's point reminded me of. Something like: for each $1,000 a year under $100,000 that the city pays its teachers, it will find that it has hired 1% more left-leaning teachers than right-leaning teachers. How much will the city need to pay its teachers in order to hire a politically balanced teaching staff?

Mr. I said...

Ann: Perfect!

L. Ron Halfelven said...

I'm struck by the extent to which everyone, friend or foe, buys into the assumption that dumping these decontextualized numbers into students' laps equates to a training in "social justice". To believe that, you'd need to share the lefty teachers' belief that the numbers are self-interpreting-- or, more cynically, rely on the kids' belief (based on their own relatively sheltered existence) that their own standard of living is the norm, any deviation from which requires some sort of special explanation.

And, as usual, I'm amused by the way the lefty teachers rely on that norm at the same time they pretend to be challenging it. If we're supposed to avoid word problems about buying stuff because it takes consumerism for granted, why worry about how much sweeatshop workers make? If they made more, they'd just use it to buy stuff. Alienation! Hegemony!

Note that if we accept Mr. I's logic the need for more teachers will be especially acute-- we'll have to replace all the lefty teachers who are rushing off to Indonesia to set up factories that pay American wages.

Bruce Hayden said...


Not sure where you are from, but at least here in Colorado, there are 640 acres to the square mile (1 section), not 660.

Learned this about 20 years ago when getting my broker's license. It turns out that it is much easier to remember acres per sq. mile than sq. feet per acred. Then, when you need the later, just square 5,280 and divide by 640 on your trusty 12-C. (amazingly, which HP is still selling).

The 640 acres per sq. mile makes computing a quarter or a quarter quarter section trivial - or should if you haven't spent your time in math piling on WallMart.

Mr. I said...

Paul: I never said the lefty teachers would suddenly leave to ensure "social justice" in another country. It was a call to action for the righty teachers to get involved in teaching in this country since they don't like the current state of it. My point wasn't about "social justice" one way or the other. My point was that if the students get interested in math through the examples used (whether they buy into them or not) this is good. Please don't twist my words to support your convoluted argument.

Jeff said...

My bad on the 640 acres to the mile. I am even a Geologist! Should have got another cup of coffee before I posted.

james said...

Is anybody old enough to remember the old Soviet Union, and the way classes were required to find a tie-in to Marxism-Leninism in every subject?

Bruce Hayden said...


Not sure your problem works, yet, as you really need a starting place. Maybe if you started with a specified mix at $100,000.

Mr. I,

The problem is that the numbers, as suggested, are not decontextualized, but rather politically misconceptialized.

Mr. I said...

Bruce: But that was one of my points: Have more right leaning teachers and introduce a balance through more right leaning examples, more "politically conceptualized" lessons.

P.S. You make a very rythmic point.

Bruce Hayden said...

One reason that the proposed method of teaching will probably not work as well as what is currently in use (regardless of how bad that is) is because the students are already consumers. They have to be in our society. The teacher proposing this is also a consumer - she just pretends that she is not.

So, teaching math through using consumer problems has two positive effects. First, the kids can relate the math better to their own lives, as these are the types of decisions that they do make already, and will continue to make throughout their lives. And, relatedly, it is useful.

Every other weekend, when I have my (almost 14 yr old) daughter, we go grocery shopping for food, and, more importantly, gum. Add to this that the grocery stores now advertise a lot of things x for $y.

So, we play a game. We won't buy anything that she wants until she has done the math. Which is better, 4 for $3 or 5 for $4? The former, obviously, until I point out that the second package has more sticks of gum.

The result is that she is getting quite adept at this sort of math, doing it almost as quickly as I do.

This has (IMHO) three benefit. First, it improves her math skills. Secondly, it turns her into a better consumer. And third, it prepares her just a little better for the SATs.

I do wonder what that teacher does in the grocery store. Does she really pick her products based on how much they pay their slave labor? Or does she try to stretch her paycheck just a little further by using the math she is supposed to be teaching to get the better deal?

leeontheroad said...

Why is this a right-wing math question, Jeff:

"A turbine windmill farm the size of Kansas would create 3.3 Gigawatts of electricity. If the US needs 21 Gigawatts of electricity, how many states the size of Kansas would be needed to be converted to windmill farms to completely power the US?"

That seems like a straight-up hypothetical to me. If you mean to suggest that the answer would teach young children that wind power alone would not meet US energy needs, so be it. Meanwhile, I'm not sure the elft woudl argue that was a "bad thing." Parts of the left are opposed to turbines, because of the way "wind farms" can affect bird migration patterns; and no one seems to know if such a large-scale wind power project might affect weather patterns, either. In any case, better to get folks thinking quantitatively about choices than not, I'd say.

My own view is that teachers need to provide tools for decision-making and prompt students to make use of them. No group of teachers, right or left, has yet eliminated the viewpoint of the other side; and that's evidence to me that it's not been possible to do so in the U.S. A consensus here seems to be that the ranks of teachers are domninated by left-leaners. While I'm not sure that's true, even if it were, then the so-called ascendancy of the right would prove that these such teachers have not been able to brainwash students-- and that's assuming that leaning left teachers have tried to do so. I doubt that, actually; but it's an arguable point.

Speaking of arguable, I don't understand the railing here against the use of the word "hegemony." The left uses it as part of an argument about a "bad thing"; neocons use it in white papers as part of an arguemnt for a good thing. No side has been able to control the word's meaning or social valance.

Bruce Hayden said...

Finally, I too have spent most of my working life working around engineers and scientists. For 15 years, I was a programmer, and then the last 15 as a patent attorney.

And I too have found that engineers and scientists tend to run more conservative or libertarian. It seems that EEs and Software Engineers tend to be more libertarian, while the older engineering disiplines more traditionally conservative.

For the most part though, it is not the religious conservatism that so annoys the left, but rather a more traditional type. However, I did find myself about 18 years ago in a situation where attending prayer breakfasts was politically expedient (and ultimately controversial, as the engineers involved worked for the federal govt.).

Partly, I suspect this all results from the typical dichotomy of feeling (on the left) versus thinking (on the right). Engineers and scientists are, for the most part, too rational to buy into politics by feel and good intentions. They tend to ask the obvious question, does it work?

HaloJonesFan said...

>Why is this a right-wing math
> question...:
>"A turbine windmill farm the size
> of Kansas (etc. etc.)

Well, the sweat-shop labor question doesn't explicitly state that sweatshops are bad; that is left as an exercise for the student. Similarly, the wind-turbine relocation question doesn't state that such relocation would be bad; it leaves the conclusion of "wow, wind power would take up a lot of space, and make lots of people have to move!" entirely up to the student.

Smilin' Jack said...

For left-wing teachers who want to impart the value of 'social justice,' here's a lesson plan: Everyone in the classroom (kids and teacher) puts all their assets in a pot (kids put in their allowances; teacher puts in house, car, bank balances, etc.) Then everyone gets a vote on how to divide it up. The kids will need to handle the math at this point, as the (formerly) left-wing teacher will be too busy screaming about his 'property rights.'

Sam Chevre said...

My problem isn't really with the examples, but with this statement: "Teachers cannot easily do social justice mathematics teaching when using a rote, procedure-oriented mathematics curriculum." I'm an applied mathematician; math (and especially applied math) is a procedure-based discipline. You can do a lot of interesting analyses; you can use methodologies ranging from division to multi-stage regression; but learning math is a matter of learning to decide which procedure should be used, what numbers should be input, and consistently applying that procedure. If your math teaching (particularly in elementary school) is not procedure-oriented, your students won't have the skills to do math.

gs said...

Sam Chevre, I agree. If the kids learn the basic procedures, they acquire the tools which give them a fighting chance against the various indoctrination efforts which will come their way.

I am currently less sympathetic to left-wing indoctrination than to right-wing indoctrination, but I'm disturbed by an emphasis on indoctrination whether or not I personally agree with the viewpoint being 'taught'. The assertion that the political dimension of anything has primacy teeters on the verge of totalitarianism. Afaic 'social justice mathematics' is a branch of 'proto-totalitarian mathematics'.

To the commenters who articulate the underlying structure of social-justice-mathematics 'problems': thank you for your efforts. Clarity is harder to create than ideological babble, and it can seem a waste of effort to try. In fact, it looks like clarity is the one thing that all the big players in the culture wars can agree to oppose.

Kathleen B. said...

I don't think anyone is against children being informed about sweatshops. They're against kids being lied to by lefty wankers in math class.

but what part of anything I was saying involved "lying by lefty wankers"? To the contrary, that is my entire issue with some of the comments here (and the original blog), namely that "social justice" is equated with "lying by lefty wankers" and "indoctrination of our poor innocent helpless children". I can think of reasons why the "social justice math education" has flaws, and some others have been stated here. But overall, most people seemed to have said: this is bad because it is about "social justice" and that is what those crazy left wingers I hate though I don't know any care about. (for example, Jeff I was enjoying your post until the end. "the left doesn't understand that actions have consequences"!? come on.)

Finally, Girish - I appreciated your post very much. I guess my problem is: why is it a choice between child prostitution and a sweatshop? is that really the best we can do?

Yevgeny Vilensky said...

In response to Mr. I's question of why more right-wingers won't become teachers...

My girlfriend, who is not a hardcore right-winger, but is probably what you would call a moderate Republican with libertarian tendencies teaches in New York City. She has to be a member of the union (or at least pay them union dues). And if she refuses to go to their union rallies, they threaten to put a comment into her personal file and prevent her from getting tenure. If she ever raises a conservative/libertarian point at faculty meetings, she's yelled at. So, please... don't tell me that right-wingers are exactly welcome in America's public schools.

In response to Kathleen B.:
Yes, I wish we could do better too. But politics is the art of the possible. No right winger says "Yeah, sweatshops, good! Bring more of them on! I want people to labor for minimal amounts of food all day! Woo hoo!" The point we're making is that people now who are fighting against sweatshops so hard have a naiive point of view that if sweatshops disappeared in Thailand and Macao, then all of a sudden, people will start having great lives. No, if you got rid of those sweatshops, those people's lives will get worse. Right now. Yes, I wish there were no sweatshops. No, I don't think that getting rid of them with one fell swoop will do much to improve things.

To all the rest of you. I am a grad student in math right now. And while I sympathize with the authors of the book when they critique the idea that math is taught as a disconnected set of rules that you must use, I must say that making it "relevant" is not nearly as important as learning the concepts.

The problem is that too many teachers today are too worried about making math "relevant" and so students engage in recipe mathematics where they are told to apply lots of different rules to get some end result, but don't know what they did or why they did it.

The main problem is that most teachers who teach mathematics in elementary and middle schools do not have degrees in mathematics, but rather in "education" or "elementary education." They do not know the context of mathematics and what it is about. Not until maybe my junior year of college, was I truly able to put everything I had previously learned in school into context. So, how can elementary school teachers know the context when many of them never even had basic introductory calculus?

Barry Kearns said...

Kathleen B. wrote:

...my entire issue with some of the comments here (and the original blog), namely that "social justice" is equated with "lying by lefty wankers" and "indoctrination of our poor innocent helpless children".

I tend to not characterize children as either poor or helpless. Instead, I treat them as impressionable. My primary objection to all of this falderal is that someone is trying to use a mandatory attendance subject as a platform to try to impress their personal political agenda onto students.

That's wrong, not because it's coming from leftists... but because it's wholly inappropriate. It would be inappropriate if it were far right-wingers doing it too, and likewise with radical libertarians or anarchists. I don't send my daughters to school in order to have their teachers recruit them to a particular worldview. I send them to math classes to get a math education.

It's my job as a parent to teach my child social justice as I see it and a proper worldview as I see it, not as the teacher sees it.

My objection to the "social justice" aspect of this is that, in a public school setting, there will likely be an entire spectrum of political and social worldviews in the families of the students. Indoctrination by math teachers towards any specific personal philosophy they have is bound to conflict sharply with the parental teachings of a chunk of the student population.

That's not an area where I want math teachers to try to impose what they believe are "their superior philosophies". They should leave their politics at the door, and teach the subject matter.

...But overall, most people seemed to have said: this is bad because it is about "social justice" and that is what those crazy left wingers I hate though I don't know any care about.

No, the problem is that different people define "social justice" in different ways, yet these authors seem to operate from the premise that their particular definition (and the baggage that comes with it) is the "proper" outcome to inculcate into their students.

They are out of bounds, in my opinion. From reading the table of contents and introduction, I think it's pretty easy to conclude that the package-deal these authors want to push includes a significant number of far-left political talking points. Do you disagree?

Do you think politically-charged examples from anywhere on the political spectrum are appropriate to push onto students in non-optional classes, where parents don't get the choice to opt their students out?

Sure, I oppose this a bit more strongly because the positions being pushed are a long, long way from my own. But I'd be treating it exactly the same if I were a left-of-center parent facing a book teaching far-right teachers how to indoctrinate my daughters with their politically-charged worldview.

It's not indoctrination simply because it's leftist... and it's not leftist simply because it's indoctrination.

It's indoctrination because it's someone in a position of influence inappropriately imposing their own worldview where it doesn't belong. It's teachers going way, way too far into areas where they don't belong. In my opinion, that's a recipe for disaster no matter what your social and political views happen to be.

Bruce Hayden said...

First, the short comment. Even in a private school, I was surprised this year that my daughter's middle school math teacher did not have a degree in mathematics. If nothing else, he didn't quite grasp our concerns. 4 of 5 boys in my family had degrees in math (2), physics (1), or engineering (1). Mother, in math, her father in engineering (as well as being an artillary officer) and his sister got a masters in 1924 from Columbia. My ex's family is little different.

So, math comes easy to her (or else!). We were concerned that the school didn't push as hard as some of the competition, esp. the best math students. So, she is probably not going to get calculus until her senior year, while if we switched schools, maybe junior year.

I suspect that this teacher has had at least some calculus. But probably not more, and maybe not even the entire series. And, no surprise, he doesn't quite get our concerns. Luckily, the high school teachers at that school do have math degrees.

Bruce Hayden said...

Now for the longer post.

I am in the midst of rereading Hayek. Friedman in his (2nd) preface suggests that Hayek is even more timely, 60 years now since first publication.

I am in the middle of a chapter on communitarianism versus individualism. And in particular, how the former is used as the primary justification for socialism.

The basic problem is that we are not Germany of the 1920s or 1930s. There is no well defined collective consciousness here. And he points out that this is true in most situations. So, it is better to let everyone optimize their own priorities.

The way that this ties into this discussion is that public education is justified basically on two grounds: that society benefits by providing a basic education in an ever more technical and complex world; and by imparting common culture, ethos, etc. to our society.

In the first situation, obviously, the jump from public education to public schools is questionable - as was pointed out a day or two ago by Friedman in the WSJ. But this math teacher goes further, by substituting her definition of social consciousness and fairness for quality of education. In other words, she is essentially making the unilateral decision that raw math skills are not as important as being socially conscious (as she defines it). But that of course cuts against the first factor.

But it also cuts significantly against the second. Her social views are not those of the majority, and even if they were of the majority, they wouldn't be of the mass plurality. Plenty of people shop at WallMart for very good reasons. Plenty of us disagree with her politically.

So, instead of indoctrinating the students in a common culture, etc., which is one of the justifications for public education, she is proposing indoctrinating them in HER social views. So much for propogating a common view.

The good side of this entire debacle is that in the long run, this sort of teacher is going to work her and her friends out of jobs teaching in the public schools - because we, at least on the right, are now asking "why should there be public schools?" and asking the education establishment, such as her, to justify their existence.

Hazy Dave said...

Bruce, reread Ann's Question:

...For each $1,000 a year under $100,000 that the city pays its teachers, it will find that it has hired 1% more left-leaning teachers than right-leaning teachers. How much will the city need to pay its teachers in order to hire a politically balanced teaching staff?

The answer is $100,000, of course, the level at which the city hires 0% more left-leaning teachers than right-leaning teachers.