Monday, June 20, 2005

Math Follies I

This piece is from today's Wall Street Journal. It deals with the revolting concept of "Ethnomathematics," the idea that math teaching cannot be neutral with respect to politics and culture. This concept deserves pride of place as one of the most ridiculous modern ideas for teaching math:


By Diane Ravitch
June 20, 2005; Page A14
Wall Street Journal

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 relevant. 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 fund-raising carnival."

Those were the days of innocent dumbing-down. 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 "non-mainstream" 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 old-fashioned to point out that the countries that regularly beat our students in international 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 21st century. The students in American classes who fall prey to the political designs of their teachers and professors will not.

Ms. Ravitch is a 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.

Copyright © 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Recent commentary: Women in Combat

Should U.S. women be allowed to serve in combat?

(published 20-Jun-2005, Appleton Post-Crescent)

For years I've told friends about the column I read in the Post-Crescent back at the time of the U.S. invasion of Panama. I don't remember the columnist's name, but I do know that he wrote about our use of women in combat roles when we went after Noriega. He compared men fighting one another to furry animals going at it: fur flies for a minute, then one is hurt. The victor establishes dominance, maybe beats his chest, and then they become buddies and have a beer. Women, however, fight like gila monsters: no holds barred, eyes gouged out, limbs torn off, until one of them lies dead, dead, dead. The columnist seemed to say that women don't have an innate sense of when not to destroy an opponent. That's why women shouldn't be allowed to serve in combat.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Oh, gawd! VII

From an article in the Boston Globe today by Robert "Hand-Wringer" Kuttner in which the author plays the popular game of "Will Hillary Run in '08?":
John Kerry may well give it another shot, as the candidate who came up just one state short in 2004, perhaps due to deliberately contrived long lines that held down Democratic turnout in Ohio.
Which James Taranto neatly skewers in Best of the Web Today:
Long lines mean high turnout. If Kerry lost a state with long lines, that would be because so many people in those lines voted against him.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Read the Bills Act is an outfit dedicated to, well, pretty much what its name says: cutting the size of the federal government. I subscribe to its newsletter and today I received an appeal to send an e-mail to my Congress critters in support of the “Read the Bills Act 2005,” (RTBA) which was constructed by DownsizeDC. There are times that I'll play along and send an e-mail, and other times I won't. Depends on whether the spirit moves me.

Today Jim Babka, the author of the e-mail, made me look at writing my Congressmen in a new way: is not a waste of time because the lobbyists who want more government handouts are there on Capitol Hill every day and you are not. Congress thinks they can ignore the taxpayer. They believe you have a short attention span and will forget about RTBA. You must prove them wrong.

You must be like the big government lobbyist who is always there, begging, begging, begging for another handout. Only you are asking not for a handout, but for reasonable relief from Congressional irresponsibility. Remember, Congress works for you! Think of something new to say about RTBA and say it. And do it week after week until you get your way.
That is reasoning that speaks to me! So I wrote the following on the DownsizeDC WYC (Write Your Congressman) web site:
I was happy to see Downsize DC prepare the RTBA. I feel strongly that far too many (most? all?) bills are NOT read before passage. If my Representative and Senators insist on adding yearly to the mountain of legislation that is proposed and passed in Washington, DC, then I insist that every single piece of legislation passing through their hands—YOUR hands—be read in its entirety.

P. J. O'Rourke in “Parliament of Whores” posed the question: “So when can we quit passing laws and raising taxes? When will our officers, officials and magistrates realize their jobs are finished and return, like Cincinnatus, to the plow or, as it were, to the law practice or the car dealership?” I suspect that a partial answer, at least, can be found in the ‘Read the Bills Act.’ If our elected representatives must actually read every word of every bill, then they just might cut back on the number of bills they introduce. I hope that day comes soon.
I urge you to write your Congressman and Senators, too. Get your start by going to the web site and pick a bill about which to badger your elected representatives.