There Is No Such Thing as “White” Math

Sergiu Klainerman:

I am not at all qualified to introduce today’s guest writer, Sergiu Klainerman.

I barely eked out a C+ in high school calculus, while Sergiu is a professor of mathematics at Princeton who specializes in the mathematical theory of black holes. He’s been a MacArthur fellow, a Guggenheim fellow and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences 

Mathematics allowed a young Sergiu, who came of age in Ceausescu’s Romania, to escape to a world where right and wrong couldn’t be fudged, and, ultimately, to a life of freedom in the United States. Without math, his life quite literally would not have been possible.

In the piece below he explains how activists are destroying his discipline in the name of progress. Worse, they are robbing poor children of the opportunity to raise themselves up by mastering it — with untold effects on all of us.

Math, with its seemingly unbiased tools — 2 + 2 always equals 4 — has presented a problem for an ideological movement that sees any inequality of outcome as evidence of systemic bias. The problem cannot be that some kids are better at math, or that some teachers are better at teaching it. Like so much else, the basic woke argument against math is that it is inherently racist and needs to be made antiracist. That is accomplished by undermining the notion of right and wrong answers, by getting rid of the expectation that students show their work, by referring to mathematical testing tools as racist, and by doing away with accelerated math classes.

If that sounds like a caricature, I urge you to read this whole document, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which Sergiu writes about below. As the linguist John McWhorter put it in a powerful piece published yesterday: “to distrust this document is not to be against social justice, but against racism.”

Sergiu wrote me in an email that the situation in his field reminds him of this line from Thomas Sowell: “Ours may become the first civilization destroyed, not by the power of enemies, but by the ignorance of our teachers and the dangerous nonsense they are teaching our children. In an age of artificial intelligence, they are creating artificial stupidity.”

This week, as promised, is education week. Like Shark Week! But dorkier. And, I hope, far more important. This is our first installment.

I’m pleased to publish Sergiu Klainerman:

In my position as a professor of mathematics at Princeton, I have witnessed the decline of universities and cultural institutions as they have embraced political ideology at the expense of rigorous scholarship. Until recently — this past summer, really — I had naively thought that the STEM disciplines would be spared from this ideological takeover.

I was wrong. Attempts to “deconstruct” mathematics, deny its objectivity, accuse it of racial bias, and infuse it with political ideology have become more and more common — perhaps, even, at your child’s elementary school.

This phenomenon is part of what has been dubbed “The Great Awokening.” As others have explained powerfully, the ideology incubated in academia, where it indoctrinated plenty of bright minds. It then migrated, through those true believers, into our important cultural, religious and political institutions. Now it is affecting some of the country’s most prominent businesses.

Unlike the traditional totalitarianism practiced by former communist countries, like the Romania I grew up in, this version is soft. It enforces its ideology not by jailing dissenters or physically eliminating them, but by social shaming, mob punishment, guilt by association, and coerced speech.

When it comes to education, I believe the woke ideology is even more harmful than old-fashioned communism.

Communism had a strong sense of objective reality anchored in the belief that humans are capable of discovering universal truths. It forcefully asserted, in fact, the absolute truth of dialectic materialism, as revealed by its founders Marx, Engels and Lenin. Communist ideology held science and mathematics in the highest regard, even though it often distorted the former for doctrinal reasons. 

Mathematics was largely immune to ideological pressure, and thus thrived in most communist countries. Being skilled in math was a source of great societal prestige for school children. And it was a great equalizer: those from socioeconomically disadvantaged families had a chance to compete on equal footing with those from privileged ones.


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