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Ethnomathematics
(Sometimes
an essay is so great, so relevant, one must quote it in its entirety. The
following is such an essay, by Diane Ravitch from the Wall Street Journal on
June 20, 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 it
easy, relevant, fun, and even politically correct. In the early 1990s, the
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics issued standards that disparaged
basic skills like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, since
all of these 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 “new, new math” as “rainforest
algebra.”
In a comparison of a
1973 algebra textbook and a 1998 “contemporary mathematics” textbook,
Williamson Evers and Paul Clopton found a dramatic change in topics. In the
1973 book, for example, the index for the letter “F” included “factors,
factoring, fallacies, finite decimal, finite set, formulas, fractions, and
functions.” In the 1998 book, the index listed “families (in poverty data),
fast food nutrition data, fat in fast food, feasibility study, feeding
tours, Ferris wheel, fish, fishing, flags, flight, floor plan, flower beds,
food, football, Ford Mustang, franchises, and fundraising carnival.”
Those were the days of
innocent dumbingdown. 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. 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, Papua New
Guineans, and other “nonmainstream” 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, gender, 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 to ethnic
chauvinists.
It seems terribly
oldfashioned to point out that the countries that regularly beat our
students in international math 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 21^{st} century. The students in American classes who fall prey
to the political designs of their teachers and professors will not.
(Ms. Ravitch is an
historian of education at New York University, a senior fellow at the
Brookings Institution, and a member of the Koret Task Force at the Hoover
Institution.)
Note: Those who still think that philosophy doesn’t matter, that philosophy
is simply “idealism” juxtaposed to the “real world,” don’t get it yet. As
Ayn Rand would have said, ethnomathematics has nothing to do with
mathematics per se and everything to do with an attempt to push the bankrupt
philosophy of subjective altruistic collectivism. Ethnomathematics is an
attack against the individual, against individual rights and free market
principles, against objective, logical, universal thinking, against the
categorization of logical thought processes – conceptual thinking – which
allow individuals to think in terms of universal principles instead of
disconnected, illogical “thought globs.” At its worse, ethnomathematics is a
philosophical attack against the thinking process, not math per se, and
therein lies its chief danger for American students.  FM Duck
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