Math conferences aren’t typically hotbeds of controversy. But add a Harvard-trained civil rights philosopher, a notorious Weather Underground fugitive, and a clutch of young, idealistic math teachers, and you have a banner-waving radical math convention—not to mention a formula for backlash.
Creating Balance in an Unjust World, slated for April 27 through 29 in Brooklyn, is fronted by hotshot lefty math icons Bob Moses—founder of the Algebra Project, a math program for inner-city and rural students—and Bank Street College of Education adjunct professor Cathy Wilkerson, who’s fortunately not teaching chemistry. (In 1970, Wilkerson and a pack of fellow Weather Underground radicals inadvertently blew up her father’s West 11th Street brownstone—and killed three fellow Weathermen—with homemade bombs
intended for the Columbia University library.)
The conference was organized by a group of 10 educators, including Jonathan Osler, lead math teacher at the El Puente academy for peace and social justice in Williamsburg and founder of radicalmath.org. About 400 people are expected to participate in a weekend dedicated to making math instruction more politically and socially relevant.
Proponents point to American children’s poor international standing in math proficiency and the persistence of the black-white achievement gap as evidence for the need to upend current teaching practices. “A lot of people hate math,” says K. Wayne Yang, an assistant ethnic-studies professor at the University of California, San Diego, and founder of the progressive charter school East Oakland Community High, where Tupac numerology counts as a class assignment. That’s the conspiracy theory that Tupac Shakur, who was murdered in 1996, faked his death and left clues in the number seven: Tupac was 25 when he died (2+5=7) seven months after the release of the album All Eyez on Me, an album that includes the song “Heartz of Men,” in which Tupac says, “I died and came back” three minutes and 13 seconds into the track (3+1+3=7). “This is something that applies to their lives,” Yang says of such projects that students can relate to, “and ideally, gets them to love math.”
The convention will even include mathematical deconstructions of Barbie. Swapna Mukhopadhyay, a professor at Portland State University, will lead a workshop on teaching students how to analyze Barbie’s cartoonish proportions. Mukhopadhyay says students will learn about “body size . . . body-image and self-worth issues, eating disorders, multicultural issues . . . media domination, labor issues, etc.”
Some educators, however, aren’t down with the program. “I don’t believe that the classroom in a public school should be used for any political indoctrination, whether by activists for social justice or activists for creationism or activists for a particular foreign policy,” says Diane Ravitch, a research professor at New York University. “What if you discovered that test scores soar in classrooms where the teachings insist on teaching creationism or fascism? It would still be wrong. The classroom should not be a podium for the personal political beliefs of the teachers. Period.”
And even among the like-minded, the notion of radicalizing algebra class is a tough sell. “I believe in social justice,” says Wilfried Schmid, a Harvard math professor and member of the American Mathematical Society Committee on Education. “But if the teaching of mathematics constantly carries an undertone of political action, the mathematics suffers.”