Education

Professor: ‘Mathematics Itself Operates as Whiteness’

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Shouldn’t we teach math based solely on the standard of what is important for students to learn in order to succeed?

A math-education professor at the University of Illinois wrote about some of the more racist aspects of math in a new anthology for teachers, arguing that “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,” Rochelle Gutierrez wrote, according to an article in Campus Reform.

Confused? Think that math is just math? Well, you’re wrong; math might as well be called “white math,” because as Gutierrez explained, “curricula emphasizing terms like Pythagorean theorem and pi perpetuate a perception that mathematics was largely developed by Greeks and other Europeans.”

As further evidence of her argument, Gutierrez added that more white than nonwhite people are math professors and that math professors often benefit from “unearned privilege” — getting more grants and more respect than other professors — just because they are math professors and not professors in another academic field.

“Are we really that smart just because we do mathematics?” she asked.

Now, whenever I see stories like this, I just have to ask one question: What, exactly is Gutierrez proposing that we do? Because other than her statement that “things cannot be known objectively; they must be known subjectively” — apparently, a suggestion that additional focus, respect, and grants should be given to nonmathematical fields — I’m not really seeing one.

There’s one thing about Gutierrez’s work, however, that I can totally get down with.

This is particularly true when it comes to her statement that math curricula “emphasizing terms like Pythagorean theorem and pi” makes math seem too Greek and European. To me, it seems like the decision about what to teach in mathematics should be based solely on the standard of what will be most important for students to learn in order to succeed.

There’s one thing about Gutierrez’s work, however, that I can totally get down with: the idea that math-y type people shouldn’t automatically be seen as being smarter than non-math-y type people. After all, I was an English major; I still add and subtract using my fingers, but that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t think I’m a genius.

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— Katherine Timpf is a reporter for National Review Online.