Blog author: jballor
Monday, June 20, 2005

This EducatioNation blog post contains the text of an incisive WSJ editorial, along with a sample curriculum that illustrates the idiocy outlined in the editorial.

In “Ethnomathematics,” Diane Ravitch writes, “In the early 1990s, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics issued standards that disparaged basic skills like addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, since all of these could be easily performed on a calculator.”

She goes on to outline some characteristics of the “new, new math,” including “using mathematics as a tool to advance social justice. Social justice math relies on political and cultural relevance to guide math instruction.” After all, as one textbook states, “teaching math in a neutral manner is not possible.”

The disdain for basic math skills in favor of reliance on calculators reminds me of Socrates’ criticism of the written word in Plato’s Phaedrus. Part of Socrates’ problem with writing is that it can become a sort of crutch, which actually promotes laziness, forgetfulness, sloth, et al.

Socrates relates a conversation between Theuth (the father of writing) and Thamus. Theuth contends that writing, “will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit.”

But Thamus replies:

O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

In this way, “social justice math” is really “know nothing” math.