Friday, February 12, 2010

Class, Caste and Math Education (long)

Consider three families living on the wages or salaries they earn, selling their labor power and forced to accept the working conditions that are imposed on them there.

One family is mostly "educated" people in "professional" jobs. These are known as professional, "white-collar" or "middle class",

One family is a family of hard-people who hold steady "regular" jobs involving more work with their hands and less "brain work". They are known as "working class" or "blue collar".

The third is of people just barely hanging on, working short-term jobs, playing loose with the law to survive sometimes in and out of jail, sometimes homeless or drifting from place to place following the work. These are the "working poor", poor or "under-class".

These differences are strongly re-enforced by employer practices, school practices, police practices, promotion of official and unofficial beliefs and doctrines, the unspoken "real rules" about what is whose place, imposed by police, prosecutors, judges and juries, and folk beliefs. These castes are further fractured by religion, ethnicity and most especially race. And they carry a heavy stigma. The poor are branded failures in life, dummies, wastrels, people who brought their own troubles on themselves by not trying hard enough, and they are blamed for society's troubles.

Objectively all three families are working class. Subjectively however they usually regard each other as different classes of people.

One of the key mechanisms for maintaining these caste divisions is the schools. And no curriculum in the schools is more used to sort people into winners and losers than mathematics.

The math that is being taught, no matter what we do to sugar-coat it, is dull, confusing and relatively pointless for most people - a towering, hoary 2300-year-old edifice of rules and procedures for constructing "the right answer" - where no normal child would see a legitimate question worth asking in the first place. A system built on a set of arbitrary axioms that in fact make no sense. Often it is claimed that math is a science, but it has far more in common with religion. It is a system resting not on observations and modeling of the properties of the real world but on authority and doctrine.

Generations of kids have been telling us that math makes no sense - and it turns out that they're right. For generations the schools have been crushing the ones who speak truth to power, and elevating the ones who submit as tomorrow's civic leaders.

The parents play a key part in how this system works to perpetuate the caste system. "Middle class" parents regard that success in math as so essential to the future success and social status of their children that they will apply any degree of pressure on their children to succeed, no matter how painful or distasteful. (Mine dropped the nuclear option on me: no love at home without better math scores!) "Working class" parents typically put enough pressure on their children to get them to get by and graduate. Their kids feel like dummies, but they muddle through. Poor parents are generally not able or willing to expend enough energy to force their children to do something which is distasteful, boring and (they admit) apparently stupid. Their kids understand best what is really going on, and get branded losers for it.

The ever-growing pressure of the math tests mandated by NCLB is part of a drive to privatize the public schools of the poor and the middle group; but it is also intensifying the struggle over which children will be able to cross over the caste divide, indeed raising this struggle into a national obsession. The goal of all children escaping from the working class is patent nonsense, but very potent. This obsession - nay, panic - has further closed off any discussion of what we really want to be achieving in a math class, squeezing out any remaining space for breaking out of the pointless pursuit of mastery of the narrow set of skills being taught.

In the current global crisis, those who have paid their dues to escape from the middle and lower castes now find the good jobs at good pay increasingly unavailable. This is causing profound disorientation, anger and bitterness among those who believe that their long hard years of jumping through hoops entitles them to something better. Such people can move toward working class consciousness, or they can move toward the false consciousness of the tea-baggers and libertarians. Their loyalty is up for grabs.

The project I am engaged in of putting mathematics on a scientific, materialist foundation thus has potentially profound social consequences, and to the extent that it contributes to a workforce where everyone possesses the tools of thought and analysis that once were the domain of the "middle class", this can contribute mightily to a coming together of all the people who work for a wage or salary. A society where all children, and eventually everyone, has higher-level thinking skills, will be a profoundly different - and for some, unsettling - place.

Education - and the schools - can be transformed. But not by any top-down reform. It has to come from and be done by the teachers, with the participation of their unions and with the support of professionals who make available expert knowledge and scientific understanding. Teachers in turn - given the power and organization to do so - will gravitate to curricula that not only produce measurable results but enlist the enthusiasm and participation of the children. It will be driven by the discovery of the possibility that math class can be exciting, engaging - and fun! And it will feed into a much greater movement to transform our society
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