There Is No Such Thing as "White" Math

I naively believed that STEM would be spared from the ideological takeover. I was wrong, says Princeton professor Sergiu Klainerman.

(A student raises her hand with an answer for a math question inside a first grade class in Fall River, MA on Nov. 23, 2020. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

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.

Like children all over the world, I was attracted to mathematics because of its formal beauty, the elegance and precision of its arguments, and the unique sense of achievement I was able to get by finding the right answer to a difficult problem. Mathematics also granted me an escape from the intoxicating daily drum of party propaganda — a refuge from the crushing atmosphere of political and ideological conformity. 

The woke ideology, on the other hand, treats both science and mathematics as social constructs and condemns the way they are practiced, in research and teaching, as manifestations of white supremacy, euro-centrism, and post-colonialism.

Take for example the recent educational program called “a pathway to equitable math instruction.” The program is backed financially by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; it counts among its partners the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley, the California Math project, the Association of California School Administrators, and the Los Angeles County Office of Education, among others; and it was recently sent to Oregon teachers by the state’s Department of Education.

The program argues that “white supremacy culture shows up in the classroom when the focus is on getting the ‘right’ answer” or when students are required to show their work, while stipulating that the very “concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false”. The main goal of the program is “to dismantle racism in mathematics instruction” with the expressly political aim of engaging “the sociopolitical turn in all aspects of education, including mathematics.”

In the past, I would have said that such statements should be ignored as too radical and absurd to merit refutation. But recent trends across the country suggest that we no longer have that luxury.

So let me state the following for the record: Nothing in the history and current practice of mathematics justifies the notion that it is in any way different or dependent on the particular race or ethnic group engaged in it.

For historical reasons, we often discuss contributions to the field of mathematics from the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Chinese, Indians and Arabs and refer to them as distinct entities. They have all contributed through a unique cultural dialogue to the creation of a truly magnificent edifice accessible today to every man and woman on the planet. Though we pay tribute to great historical figures who inform the practice of mathematics, the subject can be taught — and often is — with no reference to the individuals who have contributed to it. In that sense it is uniquely universal. 

Schools throughout the world teach the same basic body of mathematics. They differ only by the methodology and intensity with which they instruct students. 

It is precisely this universality of math — together with the extraordinary ability of American universities to reward hard work and talent — that allowed me, and so many other young scientists and mathematicians, to come to this country and achieve success beyond our wildest dreams. 

The idea that focusing on getting the “right answer” is now considered among some self-described progressives a form of bias or racism is offensive and extraordinarily dangerous. The entire study of mathematics is based on clearly formulated definitions and statements of fact. If this were not so, bridges would collapse, planes would fall from the sky, and bank transactions would be impossible.

The ability of mathematics to provide right answers to well-formulated problems is not something specific to one culture or another; it is really the essence of mathematics. To claim otherwise is to argue that somehow the math taught in places like Iran, China, India or Nigeria is not genuinely theirs but borrowed or forged from “white supremacy culture.” It is hard to imagine a more ignorant and offensive statement. 

Finally, and most importantly, the woke approach to mathematics is particularly poisonous to those it pretends to want to help. Let’s start with the reasonable assumption that mathematical talent is equally distributed at birth to children from all socio-economic backgrounds, independent of ethnicity, sex and race. Those born in poor, uneducated families have clear educational disadvantages relative to others. But mathematics can act as a powerful equalizer. Through its set of well-defined, culturally unbiased, unambiguous set of rules, mathematics gives smart kids the potential to be, at least in this respect, on equal footing with all others. They can stand out by simply finding the right answers to questions with objective results. 

There is no such thing as “white” mathematics. There is no reason to assume, as the activists do, that minority kids are not capable of mathematics or of finding the “right answers.” And there can be no justification for, in the name of “equity” or anything else, depriving students of the rigorous education that they need to succeed. The real antiracists will stand up and oppose this nonsense.

Are you on Clubhouse? If you are, please join me and some of my heroes tomorrow evening at 9:30 PM EST. If you don’t yet know the names Isaac de Castro, Blake Flayton, Sabrina Miller, or Max Price, you should.