No, a Mathematics Education Professor Did Not Attack “Algebraic and Geometry Skills”

From Campus Reform:

A math education professor at the University of Illinois argued in a newly published book that algebraic and geometry skills perpetuate “unearned privilege” among whites.

Rochelle Gutierrez, a professor at the University of Illinois, made the claim in a new anthology for math teachers, arguing that teachers must be aware of the “politics that mathematics brings” in society.

“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 argued.

Gutierrez also 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.”

Further, she also worries that evaluations of math skills can perpetuate discrimination against minorities, especially if they do worse than their white counterparts.

“If one is not viewed as mathematical, there will always be a sense of inferiority that can be summoned,” she says, adding that there are so many minorities who “have experienced microaggressions from participating in math classrooms… [where people are] judged by whether they can reason abstractly.”

The report is now receiving wider attention in the media, and social media is awash with outrage and grievance. The impression is that Gutiérrez is denouncing mathematical knowledge and skills as inherently racist because of European origins, and that they should be proscribed.

An easy “gotcha” and and easy headline, but as is often the case with these sort of things there is less interest in the overall context of a supposedly controversial quote, which is instead placed alongside a distorting and polemical extrapolation. Gutiérrez’s chapter, titled “Political Conocimiento for Teaching Mathematics: Why Teachers Need It and How to Develop It”, can be viewed in full on Google Books, as part of a book called Building Support for Scholarly Practices in Mathematics Methods. The passage that has generated controversy appears in context on page 17.

In fact, her chapter makes no direct reference to geometry or algebra, and she does not argue that having mathematical skills amount to “unearned privilege”. Here’s a more extensive quote from the same material – in particular, note the Campus Reform excision from the last paragraph, and the fact that the website substituted Gutiérrez’s reference to “people” with “minorities” (again, a word that does not appear in her chapter):

School mathematics curricula emphasizing terms like Pythagorean theorem and pi perpetuate a perception that mathematics was largely developed by Greeks and other Europeans. Perhaps more importantly, mathematics operated with unearned privilege in society, just like Whiteness.

…We treat mathematics as if it is a natural reflection of the universe… mathematics is viewed as a version of the world that is proper, separate from humans, where no emotions or agenda take place…

Currently, mathematics operates as a proxy for intelligence. Society perpetuates the myth that there are some people who are good at mathematics and some who are not… When we combine the belief that mathematics operates with no values, no judgments, no agenda, with the idea that it properly confers intelligence and importance in society, it can impact on how one thinks of oneself…

So many people are walking around in society who have experienced trauma, microagressions from participating in math classrooms where the idea of being a successful person, being an intelligent person, is removing oneself from the context, not involving emotions, not involving the body, and being judged by whether one can reason abstractly.

Clearly, this is a general reflection on the status of mathematics – and mathematicians – in society, and it is a contribution to a discussion on mathematics in sociopolitical context and in relation to pedagogical approaches that has been ongoing for some time. Campus Reform, however, have instead suggested an attack on mathematical skills, presumably to make her look unreasonable and foolish, and perhaps because of the opportunity to promote resentment among anyone who uses a set-square and protractor in their daily work.

The point here is not that Gutiérrez’s perspective is not open to criticism or debate, but that it deserves better than crude misrepresentation in the service of an outrage-driven culture war. The above seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable argument, and increasing awareness of the non-European contribution to mathematics would bring welcome balance.

This last point has in fact been addressed since the 1990s (perhaps earlier). In 1993 Oxford University Press published Multicultural Mathematics; according to the blurb:

The history of mathematics is one of creation and discovery in many parts of the world, and yet few people realize that Pythagoras’ Theorem was known to the Babylonians a thousand years before the Greeks. Similarly, Pascal’s Triangle of 1645 was actually used in practical ways much earlier in China. Indeed, there is a rich field of African, Middle Eastern, and Asian mathematics that is often ignored in the teaching of the subject. Mathematics, then, is an international language and field of study that knows no barriers between race, culture, or creed.

This may be “triggering” news for campus witch-hunters on the right, but pointing it out is not an attack on “algebraic and geometry skills”.

One Response

  1. “Society perpetuates the myth that there are some people who are good at mathematics and some who are not…”

    Er, er… oh, I can’t be bothered.

    I could, however, be motivated enough to check out the reasoning behind the mish-mash of English/Spanish (“Political Conocimiento…”) although I’m not sure I’m really any the wiser: while acknowledging that ‘conocimiento’ IS a Spanish word, and even giving us its English translation, the writer wants it to refer to a “version” dreamt up in 1987 by someone. To what purpose?

    “Teachers with political conocimiento are able to question authority when outside entities come in and tell us that we need to focus on “bubble kids” or that we need to develop a “growth mindset” in our students. If we are telling students that it is really important for them to develop perseverance and grit or grow new dendrites to get smarter, but the system remains stacked against them, is that really a healthy perspective to promote? From the point of view of students of color and historically looted students, does that just sound like a new version of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”?”

    I had to delve into the dictionary as “dentrites” – which students are apparently being told they need to grow – wasn’t a word known to me.

    [Definition: a short branched extension of a nerve cell, along which impulses received from other cells at synapses are transmitted to the cell body.]

    Later, the “four dimensions of equity/learning” are introduced, with “Nepantla, a form of Nahua metaphysics” at the core. Those mastering this whateveritis are labelled ‘Nepantler@s’, as the writer, rather predictably, rejects the “gender binary” and takes umbrage at the inherent (or ‘imagined’) patriachy in the Spanish language… leading me to wonder why in God’s name they decided to repurpose (and redefine) the word ‘conocimiento’ in the first place.

    I think the writer has more than a single bee in her sombrero. The rank stench of academic bullshit is overpowering and I now need a walk in the fresh air.

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