This is the second article in a series on learning in America.

Ethnomathematics. It was a column by Diane Ravich in the May 20, 2005 Wall Street Journal, and later extracted for the 2005 Hoover Digest No. 3 that grabbed my attention. After reading Ravich’s work, I became interested in what she dubbed ethnomathematics and began digging into “social justice mathematics.” That’s the more broadly used term for this new method of teaching arithmetic and mathematics.

I’ll bet none of my readers will have heard of social justice mathematics. I hadn’t, and it’s taken me a lot of Googling and several months of study to begin to grasp the concept.

For some strange reason, I’ve always thought mathematics was a step beyond arithmetic — a science that deals with relationships and symbolism of numbers. Geometry, algebra and calculus come to mind. But I suspect most of us combine the high order stuff with addition, subtraction, division and multiplication — which is more properly called arithmetic, when we talk about math.

Social justice mathematics does still use numbers and relationships of numbers, but the vehicle for teaching it comes straight out of contemporary sociology. See if the following quote from “The New Teachers Book – Rethinking Schools Online” helps you get the picture.

“When teachers weave social justice into the math curriculum and promote social justice math across the curriculum, students’ understanding of social matters deepens. When teachers use data on sweatshop wages to teach accounting to high school students or multi-digit multiplication to upper-elementary students, students can learn math, but they can also learn something about the lives in various parts of the world and the relationship between the things we consume and their living conditions.”

I wonder if Archimedes or Newton had thought about that?

If I were a student in such a learning environment I might wonder what class I’d signed up for. I was gifted with a pretty good mathematical aptitude, and although I did take some advanced classes in college my youthful lethargy overcame any inclination to become a mathematician. But I do remember the learning process to which I was exposed, and it left me with a sense that there was something pure about mathematics.

Professor Luis Ortiz-Franco author of “Chicanos Have Math in Their Blood” encourages teachers to teach about the base-20 Mayan number system as a way to emphasize, to both Chicano students and others, that math has deep roots in indigenous cultures. This is interesting. After all, most of us have been exposed to a variety of numbering systems such as the Abacus, Roman numerals, Arabic numerals, binomial numbers, and so on. But insofar as I know, base-20 does not rank very high in terms of contemporary usage. Good stuff for a history class, wouldn’t you think?

Another idea that’s sprung from ethnomathematics is the presumed value of getting school kids to write letters to social studies book publishers. One such campaign provided the publishers with the benefit of a study done by a group of math students which analyzed the failure to include statistics on slave-holding presidents in their textbooks.

Gosh, my math education was so simplistic by comparison. If I remember, I did problems about two trains on the same track heading toward one another at different speeds. How boring!

“Social justice math relies on political and cultural relevance to guide math instruction,” says Diane Ravich. Maybe that’s why NASA has had so many problems with its space program. The scientists never learned how many jicamas it takes to fill a bushel basket.

The advocates of social justice math, or as Ravich calls it, ethnomathematics, make their point in this way: Different cultures have evolved different ways of using mathematics, and students will learn best if taught in ways that relate to their ancestral culture. What a stretch!

Poor Albert Michaelson, who was a Prussian-born American scientist, probably had difficulty keeping his cultural backgrounds straight when he worked on his seminal experiments to calculate the speed of light. It’s a wonder he got it right.

The beauty of mathematics is its universality. It doesn’t make any difference who learns mathematics, its rules, relationships and symbolism are the same. The advocates of ethnomathematics seem to be saying if we teach math in Milwaukee we should couch the questions in terms of beer consumption — in Chicago problems should be based on how long to boil the kielbasa — Pennsylvanians need to know how much strudel to serve per ounce of sauerbraten.

But, no, that isn’t truly what they’re after. The amount of beer consumed in Milwaukee is low on their radar screen. They really want math teachers to teach about poverty, illiteracy, unfair labor practices, union dues and the children who weave rugs in Pakistan. If students grasp the social significance of why shoes made in Bangladesh are cheaper than shoes made in Boston, they get an A on the test.

If the proponents of ethnomathematics truly want to find ways to help kids learn the basics of mathematics, I could accept it. But that’s not the motivating factor. Eric Gutstein and Bob Peterson point out that their “perspectives on teaching for social justice have been shaped by our own involvement in movements for social justice during the past three decades — the Civil Rights Movement, anti-war movements, educational justice movements and other campaigns.”

Some readers of this column may conclude that I’m merely making fun of a new twist in teaching math. That’s not the case. Number one, I’m concerned that there are otherwise intelligent members of the education community who are disguising social issues as pure science. Second, for the majority of students, math is a difficult subject to master.

It requires the thoughtful application of principles that have evolved over more than two thousand years and have been tested and proven before their acceptance. Third, it’s an honorable discipline that should not be marginalized by those who would use it to repair the world’s social ills. Let them use their own forum.

As Ravich points out, “This fusion of political correctness and relevance may be the next big thing to rock mathematics education, appealing as it does to political activists and ethnic chauvinists.” Now that really scares me!

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