Saturday, May 27, 2017

Mathematical Ethics?

I'm currently reading the book Hidden Figures, a delightful true story told by Margot Lee Shetterly about a group of African American women in the 1940s and 50s who worked in aeronautics research as mathematicians. The book has been made into a movie and the story of how their math skills, as well as their pluck, enabled these women to overcome racial and gender barriers is compelling. So I was perplexed when I came across this report from Robby Soave at about a math curriculum designed by a group called Teach for America that implies that it's somehow an injustice to expect minority students to learn mathematics as it's traditionally taught.

Soave writes:
Teach for America thinks that language is "social justice," and has designed a course that makes some startling claims about math. [For example]:
"In western mathematics, our ways of knowing include formalized reasoning or proof, decontextualization, and algorithmic thinking, leaving little room for those having non-western mathematical skills and thinking processes," the training course claims.
Whoever wrote this should be cashiered on the grounds of nincompoopery. So should whoever approved its publication. There's no such thing as "western mathematics." Math is universal. There's not one set of "mathematical skills and thinking processes" for Europeans, another set for Asians, and still another for Africans. Math is applied logic and the laws of logic are not relative to different cultures as though they were like preferences in food or dress. The law of non-contradiction is not a matter of cultural predilection or opinion.

Soave continues to extract more instances of buffoonery from the Teach for America materials:
"Mathematical ethics recognizes that, for centuries, mathematics has been used as a dehumanizing tool....mathematics formulae also differentiate between the classifications of a war or a genocide and have been used to trick indigenous peoples out of land and property."
Mathematical ethics? What could that possibly be? Are there scholars who teach and write about mathematical ethics? Do they explore the ethical implications of imaginary numbers or the moral ramifications of dividing by zero? Mathematical ethics sounds a bit like astrobiology - they're both disciplines without a subject matter.

The balance of the quoted sentence sounds even more nonsensical, perhaps, than the notion of a mathematical ethics.

But enough. Soave concludes with this:
I'm open to the idea that math—particularly advanced math—is over-valued as a K-12 subject. There's a good argument to be made that high schoolers should be taking less Algebra II and reading more Shakespeare. But if we're going to teach math, I'm not sure we should be teaching that it's mostly just this bad thing Western countries used to subjugate indigenous peoples, as if that's the main thing you need to know about math.
I agree with him completely about this. I question, for example, the need for academically-oriented high school students to take calculus, a math that even many engineers don't use much. Their time would be better spent taking probability and statistics or taking more history/government, literature, or philosophy, and saving calculus, if they need it, for college.

Soave is also correct in pointing to the absurdity of teaching young people that math is somehow a tool of evil oppression. On the contrary, I can think of no better way for young minority kids to improve their socio-economic prospects in life than to master mathematics. It opens a lot of highly remunerative doors for the student who makes the effort. Just ask many of our Asian-American students - who certainly don't seem to have a problem with "western mathematics" - or read Shetterly's Hidden Figures.