Math for Social Justice

I wish the Wall Street Journal had turned on comments for this article.

In today’s paper, the Journal had a brief description of a textbook titled “Mathematics for Social Justice: Resources for the College Classroom”.

The description was copied nearly verbatim from the online bookstore of the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Here is the full description from the AMS web site:

Mathematics for Social Justice offers a collection of resources for mathematics faculty interested in incorporating questions of social justice into their classrooms. The book begins with a series of essays from instructors experienced in integrating social justice themes into their pedagogy; these essays contain political and pedagogical motivations as well as nuts-and-bolts teaching advice. The heart of the book is a collection of fourteen classroom-tested modules featuring ready-to-use activities and investigations for the college mathematics classroom. The mathematical tools and techniques used are relevant to a wide variety of courses including college algebra, math for the liberal arts, calculus, differential equations, discrete mathematics, geometry, financial mathematics, and combinatorics. The social justice themes include human trafficking, income inequality, policing, environmental racism and justice, gerrymandering, voting methods, and access to education. 

I’m not sure why the Journal had such a “story”, in their “Notable & Quotable” editorial section.

My sense is that the editors think the book is a little goofy, a little too liberal, and wanted to get the readers of the paper riled up, most of whom would likely ridicule such a textbook. And if that’s the case, why didn’t the Journal let the readers add their comments to the “story”? I’m sure many of the readers would argue that social justice has no place in a math class; just teach the math concepts.

I totally disagree and would love to take a course where this was the main textbook.

I’ve spent the past couple of years taking math courses, and while I thoroughly enjoyed all of them, I found that once I learned a mathematical concept, I wanted to apply it to a realistic problem. While there’s a sense of personal fulfillment when you complete a proof, it seemed like I was doing math for math’s sake. I wanted to learn what I could DO with the math I was learning, and not just work in abstract terms.

In addition, a lot of the problems I worked on over the past couple of years that did have real-world applications were just not interesting – such as how much fencing would I need for a certain pasture or how long would it take to fill a bucket to a certain volume if there was a hole in it.

But using math to help examine or solve social problems – could there be any higher purpose?

I would hope that such a course would not start with any preconceived notions of how a social justice issue should be analyzed or solved, but would rely on the objectivity of mathematical analysis to work through such issues. If necessary, having people with opposing points of view present how math could be used to support two very different perspectives on social issues would be quite informative and could spark a healthy debate, all supported by data.

Perhaps some people might not like what the data reveals when you use math to study social problems; the results may not fit their view of the world. Isn’t that one of the goals of education – to open us up to new ways of thinking about things?

Again, it sounds like the textbook could be the foundation for a great course, and I hope the textbook sells well.

*image from the National Numeracy Network Conference