“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris


Wednesday, November 16, 2022

School Math and Privilege

 I just wrote the author of this New Yorker essay and I thought you would like to see my letter: 

Dear Jay, 


Thank you for the very good essay. It resonated with me, and as a white fairly male (!) human I might have something interesting to add to the conversation. Namely that it seems objectively the case that math is inhibited by one’s life if one’s life has obstacles and poverty and crushing things in it. 

I grew up on bare floorboards, not the nice polished kind, my mum (UK) had $15 a week to feed three boys. I ate a lot of internal organs and was very cold a lot. 

I was the top scholarship boy (all fees paid) at a very posh public school (St. Paul’s, Milton went there). But I was a B+ student at math, tops. 

Looking back on it, there was no good reason why if all you looked at was what I was studying. I was great at other “STEM” topics. More on that. And when I was relaxed and happy I was great at math. I was the only student to get a crucial answer right during a very high stakes exam when I was thirteen. All the usual math geniuses couldn’t see the answer. 

My theory is that actually math is not STEM! 

The “math” in STEM is actually computation. Computation is different from math. Show me the number one. No, that’s just your finger. Show me. (This is Immanuel Kant compressed into three sentences.) 

Math derives from Greek mathesis meaning communion. Math means communing. You’ve hit the wall. You’re five years old. One plus one equals what????? You’ve hit the wall. You’re a math professor and you’re 40. Fermat’s last theorem is staring you in the face. 

And you’re fine with that. You’re fine with wailing at that wall all your life. 

This is much more like staring at a poem than it is like pretending to be your iPhone calculator only billions of times slower. 

The solution in the long term: kill STEM. Don't kill computation. Kill the ideology. 

Computation is to math as farming is to eating farmed things or cooking them or imagining them. 

Computation is to math as folding the laundry is to wearing clothes. 

Without being able to wear lovely clothes, laundry folding means you're folding someone else's laundry. 

That is the problem. 

STEM without a reason is slavery—computation is the farming you have to do in order to get the result but why are you trying? You’ve got nothing. Bare floorboards. What’s the point? 

My English teacher showed me the point. He was the fierce encouraging father I didn’t have. My math teacher didn’t. Simple as that. 

Reimagine math as totally different from mere computing. After all mathematicians did it. It’s called the 19th century. Georg Cantor. They invented computation and computers in order to understand what Kant had done: blown up how to be right, no one had thought to check before him…we’re using numbers, but what the heck are they? Set theory. Stuff that Russell and Whitehead and logic hated. Logic that mathematicians turned into pretzels to talk rubbish (Godel, Turing). 

Math is from the future. Computation is from the past. Math is the future. Logic is the past. Math is better than logic. If you don't like your laundry folding method you can change it. Logic is not written in stone. 

Math isn't written at all. Math is communing. Hence the beauty of truth. 

STEM destroys math, because it’s not math. 

The real stem is the humanities. It was called the trivium when trivium meant three-legged stool, not “trivial thing.” You learn how to make meaning (grammar). You learn how to make meanings that are coherent and true on their own terms (logic). You learn how to convey this (rhetoric). 

THEN you can make facts tailor made for the editors of Nature: Biology. 

I can see why Obama emphasized STEM but it’s a tragedy that he did. 

What would be truly empowering for beaten down people would be to get them in touch with the real actual feeling of math, the contemplative feeling. Wall is transparent or mostly opaque, you don’t care. You’re happy to wail. 

The progressive math people are wrong for the right reasons. They intuit something is wrong—the intuition aspect got beaten out by STEM and related issues going back decades. They intuit this is to do with race and class. Yes! The solution, to make computation easier without addressing the real “feel” of math, is wrong. 

The traditional math people are right for the wrong reasons. Good rigorous computation is great, but they have lost the ability to convey why that’s great. It's easy to understand why. We live in a world controlled by engineering. 

Imagine: you’re so poor and crushed. You’re computing all the time. If you have to get to McDonalds for breakfast at 5am before a 50 mile drive to work and etc etc etc, if you’re a kid trying to cross the street without being killed by a white police officer, you’re always, always, always calculating. 

It’s not that you’re “bad” at STEM. It’s that just to cross the street, you have to be a STEM genius. There’s no RAM left to do the school math. 

And you don't why know to do yet more computation, except to please the Man who in your case is your school. There's no reason to do it. You have to do that kind of thing just to walk down a street. 

Despair. 

Your math teacher, instead of making computation easy, needs to make the math feeling really really freely available. I had the "literature feeling" installed by a fierce quite left wing passionate guy. The math teacher could've done that. But unfortunately, performing like a ballet student the best computation moves is a thing that is admired in math. This codes for privilege always winning. You can only do nice ballet if you can afford the clothing and the classes and you have enough RAM in your head left over from walking and shopping and etc etc. 

Being privileged means you don't have to calculate all the time just to survive. So you can excel in math class. You have lots of RAM left over. 

At Rice one English professor’s husband is in the math department. We have found that the overlaps are startling and informative. 

So, to conclude: 

1. Kill STEM or radically reframe it. 
2. Teach “math feel” like great English teachers teach poetry feel. 
This will require educating math teachers more like English teachers. Yes they need to learn about racism etc etc. They do. This is the one lever we have in the absence of the sweeping social changes that will actually make everyone love math. 

and 

3. Let poor crushed students off the computation hook. They’re doing enough already. They’re not failing at math. They don't need to prove for one more second how good they are, because they have to compute all the time. Talk about high stakes testing. They're good: they're still alive. What they need is to write essays about math maybe, learn to meditate--that's exactly what math is. They need a reason why to be alive rather than more survival rules. 

Yours, Tim



Timothy Morton (they/them)
Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English
Rice University


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