Saturday, July 13, 2024

Don’t let dystopia beat math: Two plus two is still four

Two plus two is not necessarily four. Wokes have chosen mathematics as their new target. Apparently, two plus two equalling four is a mark of Caucasian supremacy. If we in India have any reason to thank ourselves for not being part of the ‘developed world’, this is it.

Across the developed West, from America to New Zealand, there is a growing movement against the purity of numbers. Schoolchildren are being told that they are entitled to claim that two plus two equals five. I have many friends who have settled in the United States and they tell me that this fight over math is the most important problem in their lives right now, even though mainstream media does not report much on it.

Many district school boards in America are thinking of changing rules about grading children on their math ability. In Britain, mathematicians at universities are being asked to “decolonize” the curriculum. In Canada, the president of the Ontario Mathematics Coordinators Association has specifically said that anyone claiming “2+2=4″ is engaged in an act of “covert White supremacy”.

The argument is that apart from colonizing the world physically, Europeans have promoted the “European paradigm of rational knowledge”. The issue is of course political. Studies in the US have consistently found that African-American and Hispanic school students do not do as well in math as Caucasians and Asians. There could be two ways to tackle the problem. One, to study the factors that may be causing this, and, at the very least, give these children more attention and coaching. Two, to say that math is racist. Sadly, it is the second path that many ‘progressive’ education experts and ‘equity’ organizations have chosen. It is also interesting that many of these advocates are funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates owes his fame and fortune to software, whose very foundation is math.

The math-racist logic, which could soon change the curriculum in many parts of the West, is that objectivity and focusing on getting one right answer is wrong and socially unjust. But the fact is that when you pay for your groceries or launch a rocket to Mars, there is only one right answer within the boundary conditions of the act. Our existence is full of uncertainties, and math is one of the only fields that provide us an anchor.

As for being socially unjust, the activist of the movement is Rochelle Gutierrez, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She writes: “On many levels, mathematics itself operates as whiteness. Who gets credit for doing and developing mathematics, who is capable in mathematics, and who is seen as part of the mathematical community is generally viewed as white.” Gutierrez worries that algebra and geometry perpetuate privilege, fretting that “curricula emphasizing terms like Pythagorean theorem and pi perpetuate a perception that mathematics was largely developed by Greeks and other Europeans.” She says that society’s premium on math skills creates “unearned privilege” for math professors, who are disproportionately Caucasian, and asks why math professors receive more research grants than English professors.

While one can agree with her complaint that the West has usurped the credit for much of math—the zero, decimal system and possibly even calculus were originally developed in India—it does make absolute sense that math teachers get more research grants than those who teach Shakespeare. This is simple market dynamics. But it does not make the English professor less smart than the math one.

The big document that powers the movement is A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction, published in 2021 by the Education Trust-West, an “advocate for educational justice”, funded by the Gates Foundation. Its parent organization, The Education Trust, is headed by John B. King Jr, who was secretary of education in the Barack Obama administration. The stuff that Pathway characterizes as Caucasian supremacy includes a focus on getting the right answer; tracking (i.e., permitting gifted students to take advanced courses not available to less capable students); seeing mistakes as failure; control of the classroom by the teacher as opposed to letting students set the agenda; teaching in a linear fashion; and rigour being taught through an escalating difficulty of problems to be solved.

Of course, this is all nonsense. One might as well stop teaching math—or anything else, for that matter—in schools if one goes by these recommendations. And if better students are not rewarded, why would any student work hard? Yet, it may not be long before many school boards in the West adopt the Pathways prescription.

All of this may seem very weird and very distant to us in India, where a majority of parents are obsessed that their children pursue a career in science or technology that necessarily involves math. But it may not be so weird after all. All sorts of ‘progressive’ education theories are already in the air. We need to be wary.

Two plus two is four and it will always be so. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith, living in a dystopic society ruled by Big Brother, believes that “freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” At the end of the novel, after his spirit has been broken and his brain washed clean, “almost unconsciously he traced with his finger in the dust on the table: 2+2=5.”

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines


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