Why Learning Math Is Political

Jose 7 Comments

Paul Ryan Cartoon

For my own professional development, I picked up the book Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights by Robert Moses. The book equates the struggles Moses had with developing voter representations amongst the most underrepresented in the South with developing math knowledge / pedagogy into the curriculum in America’s classrooms. Observe:

So algebra, once solely in place as the gatekeeper for higher math and the priesthood who gained access to it, now is the gatekeeper for citizenship; and people who don’t have it are like the people who couldn’t read and write int he industrial age. But because of how access to – the learning of – algebra was organized in the industrial era, its place in society under the old jurisdiction, it has become not a barrier to college entrance, but a barrier to citizenship.

When people tell me that they weren’t born to do math, a small part of me wonders about the ramifications of any student who consistently tells themselves that they don’t have either the capacity or the potential to do any of the maths we learn in schools. Because of the changing economy, the entire way our communities view math needs to change.

Equally as important, we have to tell our communities that we can and will learn math.

See, the most dangerous thing about education is that it has the potential to dispense knowledge to others. When people actually learn about their histories, their legacies, and their worth on the planet, they become critical thinkers and agents for change.

It’s a small part of the reason why those of us who think critically seriously wonder if the confusion, bureaucracy and diminishing budgets in education serve to assure inequity rather than relieve it.

This is also why math is the answer. Governments, media, and corporations cloak their most important operations in advanced mathematics. We can no longer settle for our communities only getting the four operations. Unlike literacy, people generally consider math a subject that no one needs to master unless they’re a specialist of some nature. Yet, without a solid foundation of math, our most impoverished students have less options for their futures economically and politically.

We will do better.

Jose, who thanks each and every one of you for voting this as the best Latin@ Education Blog in all the land …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 7

  1. thetransmediator

    Bravo. Muy bien dicho. Math, and in particular Algebra, has become the gatekeeper to further work in math. I am forever grateful that in my day, when I was still learning English in grade school, math was still done in numbers as opposed to word problems, as it is now. Math kept me sane while immersed, as a Spanish speaker, in an English environment.

  2. Steven Evangelista

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts. It’s embarrassing across subcultures within our country to be functionally illiterate, but innumeracy, especially for girls and women, carries no such taboo.

    Unfortunately schools reinforce the view that some are “born to do math” and some are not, and schools have reinforced gender stereotypes with their messaging and their pedagogy. Brain research tells us otherwise.

    I have a few things to say about this topic on my own blog.

  3. Tara

    (1) Glad you mentioned Robert Moses’ RADICAL EQUATIONS and (2) glad that you chose to blog about this subject. If one thinks about it, an actuary is often crunching numbers to decide whether or not it is worth it to safeguard a product or should they let it go since the lawsuits will not dent their profits. Math can be used in corporate plotting, so the government could easily do otherwise. Math is not always impartial as it seems. It is another discipline that can be manipulated, like any other. So, I’ll share this scene from “Good Will Hunting”: http://youtu.be/UrOZllbNarw

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  4. Stephen Lazar

    Glad you enjoyed the book. Moses is a hero of mine. If you haven’t read Charles Payne’s “I’ve Got the Light of Freedom,” which focusing on Moses’ efforts organizing Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

    I had the great pleasure of having lunch with him a couple years ago. I couldn’t believe how unassuming he was in person. It was a stark reminder that anyone really can make a huge difference in the world.

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      Jose

      Thanks, Stephen. It was a great book, but you probably knew I’d love it, too. He does come off rather unassuming and very focused on the work. I love it.

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