Some Thoughts on Teaching Math for Social Justice

Short version: I’m not in favor of it.  For a teacher to use their position of power to push their political and social views on their students is an abuse of that power.

Long version: See the rest of this post.

Recently someone posted some “Teaching Math for Social Justice” presentation slides on a math mailing list I’m on.  This got me to thinking more about this topic and why it has always bothered me.  What follows isn’t an argument so much as it is a collection of thoughts.

The term “social justice” is a bit slippery.  What does it mean, actually?  It sounds like it’s a subset of justice, but that’s not how it’s used in practice.  In practice, “social justice” seems to me to be pretty much identical to “a progressive’s view of justice.”  It’s one of those political buzzwords that sounds like every decently moral person ought to support, but when you dig down to how it’s used and what it means in practice, you find it always promoting one side of the political spectrum’s vision of how the world should be.  (The closest analogy on the right to “social justice” that I can think of is “family values.”)

So, to me, someone advocating “teaching math for social justice” is saying that they are going to use their mathematics classes to push their political and social views on their students.  That has no place in a classroom.  It’s an abuse of power.  It’s certainly not just.

The usual rationalization that I’ve heard (and it’s one that shows up in the slides) is something along the lines of “Teaching is a political act.  It can’t be neutral.  Since it can’t be neutral I’m just going to use it to advocate for my own beliefs.”  (Well, the conclusion is never stated that baldly, but that’s what it always amounts to.)  This argument has always struck me as self-serving and a cop-out.  There are lots of ideals that are almost certainly unattainable – a perfectly just society, a completely neutral press, an end to crime and poverty and all of our other social ills, for example.  Does that mean that we should give up – stop trying for a more just society, descend into purely partisan journalism, quit punishing crime and working to alleviate poverty?  Absolutely not.  Neither should we stop trying to keep our teaching focused on the subject matter, remaining neutral with respect to topics and subjects that do not directly pertain to that subject matter.

Another justification is that using political and social examples in a math class can be effective teaching tools.  I agree with this, but it has to be done carefully.  I also don’t think the teaching-math-for-social-justice advocates would be that interested in, say, the most famous use of Simpson’s paradox (a phenomenon often discussed in introductory statistics): showing that a claim of bias against women in graduate admissions at the University of California-Berkeley was completely unfounded.  When they advocate for the use of political and social examples in math, they mean examples that support their politics.

I think some of the motivation for teaching math for social justice comes from the fact that teaching math is hard.  It can be difficult for some people to get fired up about continuing to find ways to lead students through concepts that are often complex and abstract.  It’s a whole lot easier to get fired up about advocating for a worldview that you care deeply about, slowly substituting advocacy for the subject you’re supposed to be teaching.  This is a temptation that all teachers must resist.  You were hired to teach a particular subject, and your students are expecting you to teach that subject.  The same argument applies to fields other than math, some of which (it seems to me) have been partially or even mostly taken over by the social justice folks.  Please let’s keep math as free as possible from the politicization that dominates so many other academic fields.  Let’s keep social justice out of the teaching of mathematics.

If you’re a teacher (as the title of Stanley Fish’s book goes), save the world on your own time.  Leave your advocacy at the classroom door.

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