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Indoctrination Fridays With Social Justice Math

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Those of us who attended public schools before “social justice” spread through the curriculum like a bad infection probably remember sitting in math class and working through problems such as this one:

Leroy has one quarter, one dime, one nickel, and one penny. Two of the coins are in his left pocket and the other two coins are in his right pocket. The coins have been randomly placed in the two pockets.

What is the probability that Leroy will be able to purchase a 30-cent candy bar with the two coins in his left pocket? Using the coins, explain your reasoning.

We didn’t know it at the time, but while we busily charted all of Leroy’s different coin combinations, we were actually being taught to tacitly approve of America’s exploitative capitalistic system.

Think that’s taking things a bit too far?

Read the words of a “fair trade” bloggerand judge for yourself:

“Did you know that child slavery is a common practice on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest supplier of cocoa beans? Don’t feel too bad if you didn’t know – I didn’t either until a few days ago. But now I know and so do you. I’m a huge chocoholic but now there is no enjoying a non-fair trade bar of chocolate, knowing a child may have been forced to pick the beans. There’s no going back. … Picking cocoa beans is hard and dangerous work. It takes 400 beans to produce a pound of chocolate so these kids work long and hard to get enough cocoa for even a few bars. No wonder most chocolate bars are so cheap and fair trade chocolate is so expensive.”

The average American “oppressor” would say that the correct answer to sample problem is, “Leroy has a one-in-three chance of having the right combination of coins in his pocket to buy the candy bar.”

But according to the social justice crowd, the correct answer should be, “Leroy is contributing to the oppression of the cocoa bean pickers of the world by purchasing a non-fair trade candy bar.”(Students who suggest charging Leroy with a hate crime would be given extra credit.) 

Proponents of incorporating social justice issues into math lessons argue that to ignore the child labor that was used to help produce the candy bar is to blind students to the plight of the cocoa bean pickers. Math, therefore, is perpetuating the problem.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to the words of Paulo Freire, one of the pioneers of bringing social justice lessons into the classroom. Freire has said that "Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral."

That sentiment is echoed throughout “The Guide for Integrating Issues of Social and Economic Justice into Mathematics Curriculum,” by Jonathan Osler.

In his guide, Osler writes:

“ … [T]he systemic and structural oppression of low income and people of color in the United States is worsening. The number of people in prison continues to grow, as do unemployment rates. Billions of dollars that were once available for social programs and education have been diverted to pay for war. …

“These problems and many others are being addressed by community organizations and activists, and often find their way into assignments in Social Studies and English classes. However, in math classes around the country, perhaps the best places to study many of these issues, we continue to use curricula and models that lack any real-world, let alone socially relevant, contexts. A great opportunity to educate our young people about understanding and addressing these myriad issues continues to be squandered.” (emphasis added)

The purpose of Osler’s guide is to provide ways in which teachers can bring social justice topics into their lesson plans.

For example, Osler suggests that a lesson about mathematical averages can used to critique the US’s war in Iraq. Students can “take casualty data for the past 12 months and calculate a monthly average from the perspective (of) a military recruiter and from an anti-war activist.”   

Instead of discussing random coins in pockets, probability lessons can be used to raise awareness of racial profiling by exploring “the probability that a traffic stop should be (and is) a person of color.”

Geometry lessons can be used to “look at how many liquor stores/fast food chains are within a 1-mile radius or within 5 blocks of your schools. This can be compared with schools in other neighborhoods.” Better still is a geometry lesson that tackles “environmental racism” by having students “determine the density of toxic waste facilities, factories, dumps, etc. in the neighborhood.”

Lessons about war budgets, incarceration rates, AIDS cases and homelessness are also identified.

The social justice crowd knows that many Americans still cling to the antiquated notion that math teachers should stick to teaching students about math and not politics. Osler answers that criticism by arguing:

“Our classrooms are politicized spaces before we walk in the door because political parties in our country are dictating what should and should not be happening in our classrooms. What we’re supposed to teach, and how we’re supposed to teach it, has been predetermined by someone with a political agenda. My goal is to provide my students with varied sources of information and support them in coming to their own conclusions.”

Osler isn’t finished. He concedes that math can be used to help people, but argues:

“ … [M]ore often it has been used to hurt them. Math was behind the development of nuclear weapons. It is used to maintain an economic divide between a handful of wealthy, White people and the billions of poor people of color around the world. It is used as a rationale for depriving people of access to cheap, life-saving drugs. So my question is: what good has the progress of mathematics as an intellectual discipline done for people? Maybe if our mathematics had a background in social justice, we wouldn’t have so many people suffering around the world.”

There was a time when math class existed to train the next generation of engineers and researchers. Now, math class is being used to inspire the next generation of social activists and community organizers.

That is why it is not surprising that in 2009, only 40 percent of fourth graders had math skills that rated as proficient or advanced, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Even worse, only 32 percent of eighth grade math students tests at those levels. 

Americans are continually reminded that “the Earth is flat,” meaning our economy is so entwined with the global economy, that U.S. workers are competing for jobs against workers in China, India and the rest of the world.

Despite these new realities, our public schools are promoting this silly “social justice” curriculum which substitutes the essentials for fuzzy concepts of fairness and equality.  This is academic malpractice, and it is the economic equivalent of unilateral disarmament.

The laughter you hear is coming from China.

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