Math Is Political

Posted on December 13, 2011 by

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Someone used to say that biking in LA was a political statement.

By “political statement”, I’m talking about a statement people who rode bikes made about where they believe power needs to reside.

Riding bikes are a nice clean way for an individual to get where they need to go.

By taking that mode of transportation on streets dominated by cars, people were making a statement about how they believe streets needed to be used.  Power needed to reside in the people on bikes and taken from shared with cars.

It still is a political statement every time I take one lane of the road (which is STATE LAW, BTW).

After reading a sampling of the math education literature, particularly Jo Boaler and Greeno (2000), Solomon, and Black from England, I’ve been struck at how mathematics education can be extremely silencing towards individuals.

When in mathematics classes, it’s basically a game of “keeping up”, a game of sink-swim survival.  It was a boring ritual we “have to” put ourselves through.  Personally that’s how I learned it in high school, till the moment that I could not keep up with the smarter Asians and learned that “hey, I want to do something that requires more critical thinking.”

I know that back in my undergrad days at OOKLA I was somewhat proud of not knowing math and sciences and skipping through its requirements, I was North Campus (Humanities and Social Sciences) pryde all the way, but I think that was absolutely the wrong-headed approach.  In my years as an Anthropologist, I’ve come to respect all kinds of knowledge, and that includes the the knowledge that can be wielded to impose hegemonic orders — meaning math/science STEM pipelines.

Math classes are a gatekeeper to studying lots of disciplines.  A “gatekeeper” in that you have to “pass” through math classes to get to something else. To be a biologist, you need to take X and X math course.  To be a nurse, you need to take Y and Y math course.  To be an engineer, you need to take Z and Zzzzz math course.

A lot of Math Professors at the large universities that I’ve been through seem to be content with making their Math/Science classes at the college and university level as unintelligible as possible, seeking to make their classes some kind of “filtering”/”weeding out” mechanism.

I think one of the reasons I disliked the math discipline was not necessarily because of the content or the language, but more so because of its culture of exclusion, and the discourse about it, which is dominated and used primarily by those who are perceived to be “gifted” or tapped with a “natural ability.”

If mathematics is a language, then ideally it’s usage and appropriation shouldn’t be used by a select few.  Stinson (2000) made the point that mathematics is not just a gateway to academic life, but also a gateway to full citizenship.

If that’s true, then we’ve got a whole bunch of half-citizens.

In ethnic studies disciplines, were all about speaking our languages to retain our traditions and heritages.  Speaking Nahuatl is seen as a political statement about not forgetting the Aztec warrior heritage.  Speaking Tagalog is seen as a way to retain a part of my culture.

Speaking the language of mathematics needs to be a matter of staying current and making political statements.  If it’s been keeping people at the gate, seems like we need to find ways to hop it.

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Posted in: Math, Uncategorized