According to a new textbook written by a professor at the University of Exeter, learning mathematics can cause “collateral damage” to society because it “provides a training in ethics-free thought.”
“Reasoning without meanings provides a training in ethics-free thought,” Paul Ernest writes in “The Ethics of Mathematics: Is Mathematics Harmful?” — a chapter of his book The Philosophy of Mathematics Education Today.
In an abstract for the book, Ernest claims that although he does “acknowledge that mathematics is a widespread force for good,” “there is significant collateral damage caused by learning mathematics.”
According to Ernest, this “collateral damage” happens in three ways. First, he argues, the styles of thinking involved with mathematics are “detached” and “calculated” ones, which value “rules, abstraction, objectification, impersonality, unfeelingness, dispassionate reason, and analysis” — which he claims “can be damaging when applied beyond mathematics to social and human issues.”
The second problem, he explains, is that “the applications of mathematics in society can be deleterious to our humanity unless very carefully monitored and checked.”
“Money and thus mathematics is the tool for the distribution of wealth,” he writes. “It can therefore be argued that as the key underpinning conceptual tool mathematics is implicated in the global disparities in wealth.”
Finally, Ernest claims, “the personal impact of learning mathematics on learners’ thinking and life chances can be negative for a minority of less successful students, as well as potentially harmful for successful students.” Ernest continues to explain that math is often viewed as “masculine,” and that that can essentially make it difficult for women to deal with learning it.
In the abstract, Ernest recommends “the inclusion of the philosophy and ethics of mathematics alongside its teaching all stages from school to university, to attempt to reduce or obviate the harm caused” — but I really don’t think this is necessary.
Now, I’ll be the first one to say I don’t like math. It was always my least favorite subject in school, but that’s not because I was intimidated by how “masculine” it was — whatever the hell that even means. I did happen to prefer other subjects, but I never once thought about my preference for those subjects in terms of my femininity. What’s more, as much as I may not have liked studying it, I certainly never viewed it as harmful to me in any way. In fact, I’ve quite enjoyed knowing how to add and subtract, and I don’t think that my addition and subtraction abilities have caused me any sort of issues because I don’t view them through the lens of any sort of philosophy.
Some things in life are objective and rational, and that’s perfectly okay. The idea that learning about something that doesn’t involve emotions would somehow make people emotionless overall makes absolutely no sense. After all, there are plenty of things we learn as humans that are strictly practical. For example: I learned how to brush my teeth without any sort of discussion about ethics or feelings whatsoever, and I continue to brush my teeth without having any feelings about it to this day. Has that affected my ability to have feelings in other areas of my life? Absolutely not, and neither did learning about math. Students have all sorts of opportunities to study subjects that lend themselves to conversations about ethics and emotions, such as literature and social studies, and they learn even more about this part of life outside of the classroom. To actually suggest that learning a subject with “unfeelingness” is going to create “collateral damage” of any kind is certainly an absurd one — and I certainly don’t think that math is our enemy in any way.
This story was originally covered in an article in Campus Reform.