No, Mathematics Does Not Need Social Justice
“Teaching Social Justice through Secondary Mathematics” is a six-week online course designed by Teach for America and offered through EdX, which provides free online classes from top universities such as Harvard University, MIT, and Columbia University.
And it is completely and totally unnecessary. Not only is unnecessary to teach social justice to children, but it’s also unnecessary for any well-educated maths instructor that knows either the history of maths or the applications of maths to waste their money on this.
Why would they think they need this?
I have no idea, to be honest with you. While working with kids, I realised early on that every kid is either asking or thinking the question “why do I need this?” about any given topic in maths. So, you make it come alive by showing them a few ways that you can use maths in a practical, relevant way.
To those that don’t see the usefulness in maths, it can seem to be a mysterious, foreboding, cold-hearted topic at worst. I know more than a few big-hearted mathematicians that would take offence at this, and a few more aspiring ones that would be disheartened to hear how others view them.
Maths topics don’t need a social justice slant to soften it or make it applicable. The teacher needs to add dimension with history, science, and engineering.
History and philosophy of math
The history of maths is rich with ideas, people, concepts, and desires that can apply directly to real life of today. To discover this, all you’d have to do is read about the lives of any famous mathematician. (Here are 200 if you need a place to start.)
The brains behind the beginnings of maths were in Egypt (which it’s first approximation of pi) and Early Vedic (Hindu) cultures. The Vedics understood relationships between geometry and arithmetic. Out of this they developed astronomy, astrology, calendars, and used mathematical forms in some religious rituals (Plofker, 2009).
After this, maths, as a field of study, pretty much stayed around the Mediterranean Sea, India, and China. It didn’t reach it’s way into Western Civilisation until civilisation moved out of that area, taking maths and the way they applied it to culture with it.
Maths didn’t start out as boring. It was modern society that turned it into something dull, lifeless, and devoid of its colourful history. A history which also applied math to religious and social aspects as well as developing structures and a tool for facilitating business. That should cover the pathos portion of maths, which should make it a lot more interesting for some minds. But what about the kids that crave logic instead? For that you turn to how maths are used as tools.
Math as a tool
Maths are a set of tools that are used to understand and organise the world around us. Even if applied to religion and social aspects of a community, this was the logical jump that our predecessors had as well. To illustrate this in normal, modern life the answer lies in hands on activities, not propaganda. Educators have a bit more control over their classes than most think, so integrating a few hands on activities that use maths should be easy.
The best place to find inspiration for teaching this aspect is by, once again, reading. Instead of reading biographies of the mathematicians, read history of science and engineering books. They can inspire hands on activities that can reinforce the maths and it’s usefulness.
Hands on activities are so much more fun than yet another worksheet. Make it a challenge between groups, and you’ve got a recipe for creativity on top of understanding. With worksheets are time-consuming for the students to do and the teacher to grade and hands-on projects bringing all the depth and aspects of maths together while decreasing the grading work, educators should look to this instead of another pushed agenda.
A little work goes a long way
Social justice is not needed. Mathematicians the world over know how beautiful math is and how it can be applied for good around the world. They know this because they have studied the history and applications of maths — not because they have a political agenda to push. If teachers really want to make a difference in the way kids see mathematics, they should delve into the rich history and plethora of uses.
Plofker, Kim . (2009). Mathematics in India. Princeton Press.