The Wrath Without The Math: Why Mathematics Wars Have Only Ever Been Class Wars

Sunil Singh
March 17, 2023
There is no story. They don’t know it or either they don’t care to know it. They just want back full control of the narrative to position mathematics as a subject aligned to authority and compliance. 

I am old enough to have lived through several fresh battles of the ongoing math wars in education. In some way, when I quit teaching ten years ago, one of my reasons to leave was just being exhausted by frivolous debates in math education. 

They were never about actual mathematics. I repeat. They never were about actual mathematics.

There were no hotbed debates as to when number theory should be introduced to students. There were no riveting discussions as to how mathematical proof was being shaded into obscurity as an important topic. There were no persuasive arguments as to who the greatest mathematicians were. There was no endless frustration regarding the history of mathematics being eurocentric, and completely lacking in thematic development of the subject across all races, cultures, and civilizations. 

Spoiler alert: math wars are just Trojan horses for asserting white supremacy

Nope. Until now, math wars have never been about content, where the needed discussion of calculus still being a historical goal for high school mathematics is taking place. Then again, the discussion still subverts the beauty of mathematics, and measures calculus on some utility. I have no idea what my teenage kids are going to do for a living, but they sure as hell are going to get a story of calculus from me someday. Just like I don’t know where their interest in music will take them, but they will surely get a colorful yarn about Black Sabbath.

When there is a “real life” application for Shakespeare, the Periodic Table, and archery, calculus might show up for discussions on the practical nature of education. Then again, it probably won’t. As calculus is too smart to be dragged into conversations that minimize and sterilize its value for a population of people that are generally entitled and privileged.

Education with inert ideas is not only useless; it is above all things harmful. - Alfred North Whitehead(Aims of Education, 1929)

Now before some of you folks who are in back-to-basics or Science of Math camps(the latter is just a rebranding of the first group) start erroneously pushing back on your “inert ideas” about math education, you might want to look up the full work of Alfred North Whitehead. He was a mathematician, philosopher, writer, and educator. As was the common phrase in the show The Sopranos, “come heavy or don’t come at all”.

Don’t come at all? Smart choice. Keep your sales pitch for 20th century math for Fox News.

Ten years back, I might have had some interest in a media article about “math wars”, falsely hoping for some intelligent writing that illuminates mathematics as a subject beyond declining test scores. Today? I don’t care if it’s Forbes, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, etc. 

Actually, It’s an even more shallow dive into the discussion, as the declining importance of journalistic institutions now has to create more controversy in less space. 

It’s never been about the mathematics content. It’s always been about flirting with classist and racist ideas about math education. Well the courting period is over. It’s a full on marriage of white supremacy.

And there is your irony of little surprise. Inferior and watered down mathematics to promote and center whiteness in education. Go ahead. Do the audit. Test scores. Explicit instruction. More homework. Back to basics. Grades. Careers. These are the phrases/words which will be littered in every argument(cough) of how mathematics should be taught.

Taught. Not what it should be. Taught.

That’s like screaming your head off about the best way to cook broccoli. Now replace broccoli with decimals, long division, fractions, etc. The mathematics that was often on the slate of Laura Ingalls Wilder. But, math education deserves some blame here for allowing this to happen, by constructing curriculum and its purpose for only external validation of society’s performance culture.

You know that adage “follow the money”. Well here “follow the data”. It will lead you to…just more data. The endgame for anyone who is getting drunk off of data collection–you don’t need a math degree to understand that testing is statistically flawed and ridiculously overvalued–is simply to sort, sift, and separate students. Data is more valuable than the well-being of students in mathematics. After all, gold stars, however earned–even through stress and toil–will lead to a lifetime of superficial fulfillment and transactional learning. Explicit instruction is a Hail Mary for rotary-dialing traditionalists to try and deal themselves back in the game. It’s 2023. How many students are going to be honestly dialed into teachers constantly giving thirty minute lectures on the driest ideas of mathematics? Analog teachers and TikTok generation.(TikTok has now surpassed Google as a search engine). Explicit instruction is just adding more oil to the water.

The math battles have always been fought on ideological hills, which are disturbingly so accessible that even right wing extremists like Tucker Carlson and Ron Desantis get to opine on what is “wrong with math education”. The more vague the discussion about actual mathematics becomes, the more leverage it gives these people to weaponize the subject and dismantle all the work that has been done in equity, social justice, and culturally responsive mathematics. Any journalistic and political hack gets to strut in with confidence, and reduce the subject to algorithms, procedures, and facts. This is far beyond explicit instruction. This is explicit indoctrination of white supremacy, disguised as smiling faces wanting to improve math education. Nothing says horse and buggy content and pedagogy like “shut up kids and listen to me explain multiplying decimals”. 

The math battles have never been fought on the plains of content. If they would have been, none of the aforementioned types of people would have had the temerity to show up. Instead, they feel empowered to talk like they are academics on the subject. Actually many are. Which also narrows the idea of who is a mathematician and what defines that. And, who is mathematics for. The implicit message. It’s not for everyone. 

Stay in your lane is an understatement for these people. It should be stay off the highway. 

If we were to fast forward how the direct instruction cult would see unquestionable success–sky high test scores–there would be a sobering quote awaiting them. Just replace “read” with “do mathematics”.

If we teach a child to read but fail to develop a desire to read, then we have created a literate illiterate, and no high test score will undo that damage. - Kylene Beers   

But, we all know that it's not even about learning or teaching mathematics. It’s about controlling students by controlling mathematics. Then all you need to do is ask questions about who is controlling and who gets to decide what mathematics is or isn’t. The answers will take you far away from the beauty, art, history, and spirituality of mathematics. It will take you to a dark and dank cave of an emaciated body of mathematics that has been starved for political purpose and gain. 

Not too ironically, if any of these people knew the full universe of mathematics and its awe, wonder, and splendor, they wouldn’t be supporting an ideology that eviscerates its historic, higher purpose and excludes the very students who have been marginalized and muted in mathematics skewed story of whiteness.

Actually, it’s not even that. There is no history. There are no attributions. There are no origins. It’s a sterile, dead, and closed subject where there are no humans.

There is no story. They don’t know it or either they don’t care to know it. They just want back full control of the narrative to position mathematics as a subject aligned to authority and compliance. 

They are all white. 

These dangerous ideas are not new. They have been peddled around for many generations. The problem is that for this generation, there is now a more ominous idea of who these people are, adrift in a world change, refusing to do likewise.

They are lost, bewildered, and completely out of touch with the realities of society, education, and above all, mathematics.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. - Alvin Toffler (Future Shock, 1970)
Sunil Singh
Sunil is an author, speaker, math storyteller, porous educator, advisor at Amplify, music freak and geek and former Board President of Human Restoration Project.
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