Social Justice Math? Emancipatory Math? What is 2 plus 2?

It’s whatever you want it to be.

Yikes! Seems like one thing leads to another and you find out more about things than you wanted to know. I received a couple of emails recently with links to information that raised concerns and had me looking for more information.

One email had to do with math. Social Justice Math (SJM). Included was a link to the video below with Tucker Carlson interviewing Connie Schrock, President of the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics. Math is racist?  “A social justice approach to mathematics education means to imbue mathematical experiences with opportunities to learn multiple histories of mathematics, analyze issues of fairness, and promote civic responsibility in their own communities and beyond.” More about SJM is available at the links provided in an article called Social Justice Math.

A number of people shared some interesting comments after they viewed this video. The comments were along the lines of how they liked math when they were in school because there was no grey area. Their answers were either right or wrong and not subject to the teacher’s opinion like writing papers were. Now, it seems with SJM the logic of math is lost and has become politically subjective.

Having been involved in math instruction issues, I tend to look at math instruction as being either constructivist/reform/fuzzy math or explicit example based math (or academic mathematics). Now, we have Social Justice Math. SJM is not really new. While I haven’t tried to trace the origins, I have seen evidence that it goes back at least several decades under different names.

It isn’t just mathematics that is or has been undergoing metamorphic change.  There are efforts to infuse other academic subjects with social justice issues.  There is a paper called Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research. Read the abstract. Do a search for Glaciers, gender, and science to see the controversy this has stirred up.  Do you suppose this kind of controversy is causing glaciers to melt?

For fun, I am going to point you in the direction of two papers written as spoofs that were published as legitimate papers.  One of the two set me off to discover some types of mathematics I had never heard of that may be relatives of Social Justice Mathematics.  More on that when we get to it.

A recent paper, The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct, was accepted and published in a peer-reviewed academic journal as reported in an article called The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies. After the paper was published in the journal, the authors revealed the paper was a hoax.

The next paper seems to have the status of a being a classic.  The Sokal hoax involved the “scholarly” publication of a paper in the mid 1990s called Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. The Wikipedia write up about the Sokal hoax included this:

After referring skeptically to the “so-called scientific method”, the article declared that “it is becoming increasingly apparent that physical ‘reality'” is fundamentally “a social and linguistic construct”. It went on to state that because scientific research is “inherently theory-laden and self-referential”, it “cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counterhegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities” and that therefore a “liberatory science” and an “emancipatory mathematics”, spurning “the elite caste canon of ‘high science'”, needed to be established for a “postmodern science [that] provide[s] powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project”.

The term “emancipatory mathematics” jumped out at me. I had never heard the term before so I did a quick search. Seems it was not even a new term when Sokal used it in the mid 90s.

I found one article by Paul Gerdes from 1985 called Conditions and strategies for emancipatory mathematics education in undeveloped countries. This notion seems to have the support of UNESCO and is referenced in at least one of their documents. Another paper by Gerdes, Mathematics Education and Culture in Third World Countries. introduced me to a number of sets of mathematics I had never heard of. Some of these may be forerunners of the current Social Justice Mathematics. Here’s the list that all seem to fit under the umbrella of another term new to me: ethnomathematics.


Justice? 2 + 2 ? Whatever you want it to be.

indigenous mathematics
informal mathematics
oral mathematics
non-standard mathematics
folk mathematics
spontaneous mathematics
hidden or repressed mathematics
frozen mathematics

Spontaneous mathematics? Should we expect mathematical flashmob performances? Frozen mathematics? Is this required for the study of feminist glaciology? Social Justice Mathematics? Is there any proof this will help our students learn and be proficient with math or has it been deemed proof is not needed because some want it to be the solution to problems in math education?

I will end with a joke that a mathematician recently told me. I did a search and found there are a number of versions of this joke. The version I am sharing was found here.

What is two plus two?

An engineer, a physicist, and a lawyer were being interviewed for a position as chief executive officer of a large corporation. The engineer was interviewed first, and was asked a long list of questions, ending with “How much is two plus two?” The engineer excused himself, and made a series of measurements and calculations before returning to the board room and announcing, “Four.”

The physicist was next interviewed, and was asked the same questions. Again, the last question was, “How much is two plus two?” Before answering the last question, he excused himself, made for the library, and did a great deal of research. After a consultation with the United States Bureau of Standards and many calculations, he also announced, “Four.”

The lawyer was interviewed last, and again the final question was, “How much is two plus two?” The lawyer drew all the shades in the room, looked outside to see if anyone was there, checked the telephone for listening devices, and then whispered, “How much do you want it to be?”

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