Racism in school curriculums “isn’t limited to history — it’s in math, too,” according to a recent Washington Post piece that accuses current math curriculums of “enshrin[ing] the names of White men” while “blurring” the contributions of others, demanding formulas with supposedly “racist” origins be removed from math textbooks and referring to the alleged issue as “the other ‘CRT’” which has been all but neglected.
The Wednesday op-ed, penned by Theodore Kim, an associate professor of computer science at Yale University, began by highlighting how Virginia’s recent gubernatorial race “revealed that the education wars will play a major role in politics for the foreseeable future.”
Racism in our curriculums isn’t limited to history. It’s in math, too, @_TheodoreKim writes in @madebyhistory https://t.co/8Ue9kySOLk
— Washington Post Opinions (@PostOpinions) December 10, 2021
Though debates over how history is taught in educational institutions are “increasingly framed in relation to ‘critical race theory,’” Kim argued the same wasn’t done in mathematics.
“[T]he conversations are difficult even in subjects such as math, which is perceived, incorrectly, as a neutral space outside the reach of structural racism and national histories,” he wrote.
In one example, he noted the “jarring” contrast between the names for “Euclid’s Algorithm” and the “Chinese Remainder Theorem.”
“The juxtaposition is jarring: The Greek scholar Euclid (300 B.C.) gets his name attached to an algorithm, while a Chinese scholar’s identity is erased, his work reduced to his nationality,” he wrote.
“This dichotomy reveals the racial assumptions hidden in seemingly apolitical subjects and how the biases of the past are embedded in the present,” he added.
Admitting he was unaware of why the name of Chinese mathematician Sun Tzu (unrelated to the famed general of the same name) — who is widely credited with popularizing the Chinese Remainder Theorem — was not included in its name, Kim pointed to historical context to make the assumption it was racially motivated.
“We can’t know what was in his heart, but we know that [‘White mathematician’ L.E.] Dickson made the choice amid a surge of anti-Asian violence in the United States stretching back to the late-19th century,” he wrote.
“Decades of legislation aiming to cut off Asian immigration accompanied this violence,” he added.
In another example, Kim pointed to the “Chinese Postman Problem,” which refers to the mathematical formulation of Chinese mathematician Mei-Ko Kwan.
“This naming goes beyond obscuring Kwan’s contribution: It becomes ambiguous whether a Chinese scholar originated the problem, or whether it is examining an imaginary postal worker who happens to be Chinese,” Kim wrote, adding that such lapses in naming mathematical concepts “rarely extend to White scholars.”
Referencing a statistical process known as the “Chinese Restaurant Process,” Kim goes further, claiming such “racist” labels entail the “dehumanization” of their formulators and contradict the notion of math as a “global” endeavor. He wrote:
With this naming, the implicit dehumanization of the ‘Chinese Postman’ became explicit. Instead of referencing an Eastern scholarly tradition, ‘Chinese’ was used to refer to a mindless horde of imaginary restaurant patrons and hostesses, lacking all agency or humanity.
“These uses of ‘Chinese’ can be found in math textbooks today,” he added. “Allowing these racist namings to persist erases the fact that the construction of math and science has always been a global project.”
Kim then accused the current mathematical curriculum of “enshrin[ing] the names of White men” while “blurring” the contributions of others.
“Rather than celebrating the innate curiosity that drives humanity to make discoveries around the globe, these practices have historically enshrined the names of White men,” he wrote. “The rest of the world is reduced to an inscrutable, fungible mass.”
“The textbooks that showcase these names, while blurring out the contributions of others, constitute false monuments to White supremacy,” he added.
This is not the first time math curriculums have been accused of racism.
On Tuesday, USA TODAY published an essay questioning whether math is “racist.”
In an effort to promote equity and access for kids of color, girls and low-income students, many math teachers are shifting toward inclusive instruction. It’s controversial. https://t.co/S3WS2LlZg8
— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) December 7, 2021
The piece highlights those math educators who wish the subject to be taught “with a stronger focus on access and equity.”
“We value the role that mathematics can play in highlighting and ultimately addressing social injustice,” says a letter headed by the California Mathematics Council signed by over 1,500 math and science educators and parents.
The essay also focused on algebra classes taught by Nadine Ebri, a math teacher and tech specialist for Duval County Schools in Florida, who uses “new techniques designed to promote equity” by “emphasizing real-world problems” involving “racial and social inequities.”
The California education department has been considering implementing a statewide math framework to oust “racism” and “white supremacy” from invading the classroom.
The framework, titled “A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction: Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction,” is intended to be “exercises for educators to reflect on their own biases to transform their instructional practice.”
The “Equitable Math” website states its training manual was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the primary private source of funding for the Common Core State Standards. The document states:
White supremacy culture infiltrates math classrooms in everyday teacher actions. Coupled with the beliefs that underlie these actions, they perpetuate educational harm on Black, Latinx, and multilingual students, denying them full access to the world of mathematics.
In October, a top official at the Tennessee Department of Education was revealed to have advocated previously in California for “math equity,” the concept that working to answer correctly is an example of racism and white supremacy.
Follow Joshua Klein on Twitter @JoshuaKlein
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