REPORT: Wokeness Comes for Math in Seattle

Aerial View of Seattle Buildings
Luca Micheli, Unsplash

When I’m being gracious, I can understand cultural relativism regarding abstractions like beauty. And yet, that same relativism applied to mathematical truth became the epitome of totalitarian oppression in Orwell’s 1984—his narrator compelled to confess that 2+2=5. Well, such relativism has jumped from the pages of a fictional dystopia to a public school curriculum.

In 2019, Seattle Public Schools adopted new standards to ‘rehumanize’ math. Behind that euphonious goal lies a set of standards that place progressive politics above, well, learning math.

The top-line stated themes of the class are “origins, identity, and agency,” “power and oppression,” “history of resistance and liberation,” and “reflection and action.” What about geometry, solving algebraic equations, or irregular numbers? The ‘new’ standards may include ideas worth wrestling with but in an introduction to sociology class. Doing so in math reflects the push for public schools to leverage every aspect of schooling towards one political goal. Math is no longer for learning math but the correct ideology.

Further down it asks “how important is it to be right in math? What is right?” When these children grow up to become engineers or architects designing bridges and towers, it will be pretty darn important. Another standard asks the questions: “How can we use data to resist and liberate? How can we use math to measure the impact of activism?” Don’t tell me that activist pedagogy isn’t in schools when it’s in the curriculum itself.

Another stated goal seeks to help students interrogate the preponderance of ‘‘western’ mathematics as the only expression of mathematical identity and expression.” Even a cursory glance at the history of mathematics belies the ignorance of that assertion. The contribution of mathematical knowledge from various world cultures is profound. That any curriculum asserts math as a western phenomenon is itself racist.

Time and again throughout the standards, math is no longer the end of the class. Rather, it becomes the means to a different end. The questions, standards, and goals are replete with progressive buzzwords like oppression, liberation, and activism.

Ironically—and what I find most pernicious about these standards—in an attempt to empower students through a relativized math curriculum, this approach will leave students without the mathematical knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in society. 

These standards could inflame passions in the face of oppression sure but then they leave students without the necessary education to become effective activists. Platitudes are easy; deconstruction is easy; building society is a difficult task that requires vast knowledge and skill.

Daniel Buck
Daniel Buck is a teacher, editor in chief of the Chalkboard Review, and a senior visiting fellow at the Fordham Institute. His writing can be found at National Review Online, City Journal, and the New York Post.

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