Few subjects seem less political than math. There is little room for subjective judgment because its truths are universal. No matter what you look like or where you’re from or how you feel about it, two plus two will always equal four, and the area of a circle will always be π r². Math is so objective, in fact, some scientists have theorized that prime numbers could offer the basis of communication with supposed intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos.
However, even if aliens know that math has no racial or gender bias, some educators on Earth seem to think otherwise. Even amid plummeting math scores in the latest Nation’s Report Card data, a growing chorus of progressive voices insists that racism and sexism are the biggest problems we face in how to teach math.
A couple years ago, in an article in the Scientific American, Rachel Crowell complained about the racial and gender disparities among those who make a career out of mathematics. She pointed out, for instance, that “fewer than 1 percent of doctorates in math are awarded to African Americans” and that only 29.1 percent “were awarded to women.” More mathematicians, she writes, have been pushing to discuss these issues and “force the field to confront the racism, sexism and other harmful bias it sometimes harbors.”
Though, undoubtedly, examples of identity-group bias in all fields exist, Crowell chose to root her complaint in intangibles: Math doctorates are not “earned” or “received” or “completed;” they are “awarded,” a word choice that not so subtly reinforces her conclusion that something about math education is racist.
Writing at Newsweek, Jason Rantz cited examples of public schools teaching students that math itself, and the way it has always been taught, is oppressive. In Seattle, recently introduced guidelines for K-12 math teachers in several pilot schools claim that “mathematical knowledge has been appropriated by Western culture” and that “math has been and continues to be used to oppress and marginalize people and communities of color.”
In 2021, Oregon’s Department of Education introduced a new toolkit called A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction, created by what Rantz calls “a coalition of left-wing educators.” The toolkit promises “an integrated approach to mathematics that centers Black, Latinx, and [m]ultilingual students in grades 6-8.” It also warns teachers that “[t]he concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false,” and that “[u]pholding the idea that there are always right and wrong answers perpetuates objectivity as well as fear of open conflict.”
This ideological trend in which everything is read through lenses of oppression and victimhood is not isolated in extreme, left-wing enclaves but has become widespread in education. Given the “Critical Theory mood” inflicting Western culture today, it is only likely to grow in the coming years.
One of the many problems with this obsession with racism and oppression in math is that it inevitably leaves students worse at math. In the case of the Seattle pilot schools, for example, performance among black students in the state math exam plummeted after implementing the woke curriculum. Bad ideas with good intentions are still bad ideas. In an effort to empower students, they are instead radically disempowered.
The wonder of mathematics lies precisely in its objectivity, as Melissa Cain Travis describes in Thinking God’s Thoughts, in the miraculous way that math corresponds to and describes the world around us. In her book, Travis chronicles how the beauty and objectivity of numbers led 16th-century German astronomer Johannes Kepler to discover the three laws of planetary motion and to correctly describe the structure of our solar system. Kepler, as much a student of God as he was a scientist, believed that the truths of numbers were eternal, existing eternally in the mind of God and structuring all of reality. Our minds—as beings made in God’s image—are uniquely suited to unlock those mysteries.
Students who are taught that answers to algebra problems depend on the color of their skin and that calculus professors are oppressors are not only not going to unlock the mysteries of the universe, but they will also believe what is not true about who they are and the world in which they live. Woke educators may hope to liberate students. But by depriving them of objective truths they are subjugating them to bad ideas. It’s a tragically ironic and disastrous miscalculation.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Shane Morris. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.