A colleague of mine sent me an article last week on a new course the Seattle Public Schools are offering in Washington State. It is called Math Ethnic Studies. Now this colleague and I exchange articles on a fairly regular basis, usually because we read something stimulating, notice that it might be of interest or practical use to the other, and forward it to him. On this one, though, I suspect he just wanted to see if my head would explode.
You see, back when I was a student at university, I spent a lot of time studying philosophy. One of the major topics of such was the nature of truth.
A major difference between the ancient world and much of the modern is that society today is fully ensconced in the idea of relativism; i.e., that there is no fundamental truth, just how different people and societies view things.
In the modern world’s defense, aside from those who really radically embrace relativism, most people carry with them a mixed view. Some things are objectively true and others are very much relative. They embrace scientific conclusions as objectively true while acknowledging that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
I disagree. Vehemently. While I understand that I often don’t necessarily know what the full truth is and that I get it wrong far too often, I still maintain that things — everything — is objectively true or objectively untrue. To believe differently is to prance down paths of moral turpitude, artistic grotesquery and social calamity over and over and over again, ad infinitum.
Now, before I go on. Let me reiterate an implication from the paragraph just above. Because I believe all things can be evaluated as true or not true (moral or immoral, beautiful or ugly, wise or inane) does not mean that I believe I know on which side everything falls among all fields of knowledge or that I am thereby militantly empowered, even directed, to impose such truths on others. Still there are some areas which all people should be able to view as objectively settled.
And one of them is math.
While in the upper echelons of math studies (especially when physics becomes downright wiggy and reality seems, as British scientist and popularizer J.B.S. Haldane noted, “Not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”), reality is less and less simple and forthright. I believe this to be true simply because we don’t fully understand it all. Not yet, in any case.
Regardless, 1 and 1 is 2. In all cases, everywhere in the universe. Yet, in the circular framework formulated in Seattle less than two months ago for math ethnic studies, one of the essential questions to be asked is, “Who gets to say if an answer is right?” This is a preposterous question because it implies that different authorities will offer different, equally valid, answers. This is simply wrongheaded.
One of the great beauties of mathematics is its objectivity, its universality. Math is a breath of fresh air in a world in which all cultural presuppositions, moral stances and even scientific conclusions are called into question, not as potential controversies to be further investigated, understood and thereby settled, but as equally valid decisions, practices and whims no matter their basis in fact of consequence.
If the objective foothold mathematics enjoys is lost in our intellectual milieu, then all may very well be lost. For if nothing is true, then every opinion is equally valid and we will all be leveled in a shared descent to the rational lowest common denominator. (And, yes, that is a math pun.) Which is not rational at all.
The truth about mathematics is what Galileo offered, it “is the language in which God has written the universe.” Or if you don’t share my theistic bent, then mathematics is the language of nature.
Now if the concern about math is that it is objective and thereby somewhat an agent of power and oppression, this is objectively untrue. Math is, in fact, an agent of liberation, of empowerment, of achievement. Those who master its truths will be armed with the intellectual prowess to make for themselves and others a better world.
Undercutting the objectivity of mathematics with such curricular fal-de-ral as “math ethnic studies” is, in itself, an act of oppression. The oppression that inevitably comes with ignorance.