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COMMENT: Professor Claims Math, Algebra And Geometry Promote ‘White Privilege’

Like many of us I scan my Internet portal page for interesting news items. This one caught my eye:

Professor Claims Math, Algebra And Geometry Promote ‘White Privilege’

The above article was written by journalist Ian Miles Cheong and profiles work by Rochelle Gutierrez, who holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Chicago. Dr. Gutierrez currently teaches at the University of Illinois. Apparently Gutierrez contributed an article to a 2017 anthology entitled Building Support for Scholarly Practices in Mathematics Methods. According to Cheong, Gutierrez maintains that teaching math, algebra, and geometry promotes “white privilege.” Simply, because white (predominantly male) thinkers, like Pythagoras, developed the mathematical sciences, teaching such sciences promotes white privilege. As Cheong puts it (quoting Gutierrez now): “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.”

After I did one of those Scooby-Doo “Huuuuuhh??” head shakes, I tried formulating a response to Gutierrez’s position. I immediately went to the foundations of geometry and even mathematics: the early Goddess-based cultures of Sumer. According to the web site USHistory.org, Sumer is home to such inventions as the first writing system, the plow (they were big into agriculture, thus the need for geometry and surveying), the sailboat (and the need for navigation), and the first lunar calendar. Sumer is also known for its clay tablets, an early form of recorded history. We’re talking 3500 B.C. here. Interestingly, these clay tablets mainly tracked inventories, such as grain stocks. I also thought of all of the contributions the Chinese and Indians have made to mathematics over the millennia. How about the Aztecs? New Mexico is home to Chaco Canyon. Anthropologists now consider Chaco Canyon to be a celestial research center (850 to 1250 A.D.) with spiral pictographs that accurately track the wobble of the moon’s orbit, which has an eleven year cycle. So, Dr. Gutierrez’s connection between mathematics and white privilege seems a bit odd. But then a light went off. Ahhh, yeah … I almost got sucked in.

As many of you know I’m a big fan of George Lakoff’s work, both his early work in cognitive science (i.e., his 1980 book Metaphors We Live By, co-authored with Mark Johnson) and his latter work in political framing (i.e., his 1996 book Moral Politics). An example of a political frame would be “death tax,” which is a frame often used by conservative politicians fighting against estate taxes. Lakoff goes so far as to suggest that we do not reason using facts, we reason using frames (like “death tax” or even “tax relief”). Facts are like hydrocarbons (i.e., gas and oil) migrating upward through porous rock formations. Frames then trap those hydrocarbons forming a reservoir of knowledge if you will. Without some way of trapping hydrocarbons, they reach the surface and just disperse hither and yon. So, a frame like “death tax” has the ability to trap information about the ins and outs of estate taxes. But … (and here’s the big but) frames tend to trap information in a way that favors a particular worldview. Again, “death tax” is a frame that supports a conservative political worldview with its focus on reducing the tax burden. In contrast, Lakoff suggests that liberal politicians could frame estate taxes as a way of providing for “improvements to the common good.”

Now, here’s something important to keep in mind concerning frames: if you accept a particular frame, you accept the worldview that holds that frame. Apparently former Vice President Dick Cheney answered a reporter’s question by simply stating, “I do no accept your frame.” Why would he say this? Cheney was smart enough to know that it makes no difference if you are either for or against a particular position. Once you begin to answer a question concerning a particular position, you have accepted the frame in which the question is delivered. If we then argue pro or con, we are still activating the frame holding the question, which is the idea all along: to give energy to a particular frame. If we begin to formulate a response to Dr. Gutierrez’s question—Is there a connection between teaching mathematics and white privilege?—we have accepted her frame, and the rest is really immaterial: it will all be trapped by the “white privilege” frame, pro or con. So, the best answer is to simply “pull a Dick Cheney” and state: “I don’t accept your frame.” But what frame is Gutierrez trying to sell? I would suggest that she is trying to sell the postmodern frame with its general disdain for all things scientific. If you believe in the modern, scientific frame, then you can simply reply to Dr. Gutierrez (and other postmodern believers) by saying, “I don’t accept your frame.” And I could end this post right here. But let’s dig a bit deeper (if you dare).

A few years back I read a book by scientists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont entitled Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (2014). Here’s an excerpt from the book description over at Amazon.com:

In 1996 physicist Alan Sokal published an essay in Social Text—an influential academic journal of cultural studies—touting the deep similarities between quantum gravitational theory and postmodern philosophy. Soon thereafter, the essay was revealed as a brilliant parody, a catalog of nonsense written in the cutting-edge but impenetrable lingo of postmodern theorists. The event sparked a furious debate in academic circles and made the headlines of newspapers in the U.S. and abroad.

Sokal perpetrated this elaborate hoax—writing an article that used a number of scientific terms and concepts but was otherwise gibberish—as a way of making the point that postmodernists build houses on foundations of sand (my tip of the hat toward Noretta Koertge’s 1998 book A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science). And, yes, Sokal’s article went through a peer review process. Apparently the reviewers and editors at Social Text were so enamored of Sokal’s article that they put it on the fast track toward publication. The main point Sokal was trying to make is that postmodernism, by design, has no systematic methodology for assessing the validity of scientific claims. As a result, you can make any claim you wish. The emperor can walk around butt naked and no one will notice. Postmodernism is the world of no worldview, which is still a worldview of course. Or, looked at another way, it’s the world of all worldviews, which is another way of saying “anything goes.” Sokal said whatever he wished in his faux article and, as he expected, it was fine. And even after the hoax was exposed, some postmodern thinkers defended the decision to publish the article arguing that it was, in fact, good postmodern thought. Yes, it was indeed well-fabricated, postmodern gibberish, but gibberish nonetheless. As computer programmers will say, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

All this to say that I do view Dr. Gutierrez’s “mathematics–white privilege” connection to not only be “fashionable nonsense” but to also be an abuse of science. But, again, this is the postmodern agenda as authors such as Sokal, Bricmont, and Koertge point out. Postmodernists wish to do away with any and all constraint (thus its close ties to liberation psychology). The frame “white privilege” then could be looked at as code for the imposition of constraint. Yes, mathematics is hard. Yes, it will challenge you. I had to work mightily to do well in my differential equations course (which was required for my geology undergraduate program). It would appear that postmodernists wish to release us from the constraint of hard work. If all us were to be released from the constraint of hard work, where would we be? who would we be?

Let me end with this thought. In my mind, I have a hard time resolving Dr. Gutierrez’s postmodern position against the modern position portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures (2016). Hidden Figures profiles the real life contributions “a team of female African-American mathematicians” made to “NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program” (quoting the IMDb.com web site). Gutierrez’s connection is a diss against all of the many, many non-white contributions that have been made to mathematics in specific and science in general.

If in the future you find your heading shaking around like a scene from a Scooby-Doo movie, you may well have encountered some fashionable postmodern nonsense. Let it pass by as it eventually disperses hither and yon. As a suggestion, it sure would be helpful if people would start conversations by telling us what worldview they believe in (even the worldview of no worldviews) and what frames they are trying to sell. Is that too much to ask?

In my opinion, the mathematics–white privilege connection is a straw man pulling our attention away from the real problem: feeding our kids copious amounts of behavioral drugs more powerful than cocaine like Ritalin and Adderall. Mathematics encourages the development of Executive Function (EF) skills like abstract thinking, mental modeling, symbol manipulation, running “as if” scenarios, etc. Yes, Ritalin and Adderall allow kids to access these EF skills by effectively dampening distraction, but it does so using an artificial, “wheelchair” approach. This is not unlike how recreational drugs artificially bring us a sense of pleasure. Problem is if you ever wish to access either pleasure or EF skills naturally, it will be exceedingly difficult to do. So it would seem that we are preventing our kids from naturally accessing the skills required to do mathematics by plying them with behavioral drugs. Rather than liberating them, we are condemning them to a life hooked on behavioral drugs. I guess you could say that this encourages “pharmaceutical privilege.”

FYI – Bowlbian attachment theory is held by the modern science worldview and uses frames from evolution, cognitive & developmental psychology, systems theory, biology, and ethology, among others. And, yes, John Bowlby, in his trilogy on attachment, did throw out a couple of well-crafted disses against postmodern trends such as the self-esteem movement that picked up speed in the 1970s.