Woke Math Comes to California
When American universities began to omit standardized testing scores there were concerns that excellence was yielding to dogma. Hard science requires hard numbers. Which is to say that replacing quantitative test data with teacher recommendations, grade point averages, and personal narratives is opting for an approach that is necessarily less scientific, as the information involved is not referenced against a uniform (i.e. standard) set of metrics. Proponents will respond that stepping away from universal ranking is intentional. From their vantage point it’s not about selecting for raw achievement but rather imposing equality of opportunity.
So perhaps it’s only natural that advocates in California are now looking to update the state’s public school curriculum for mathematics. Not content to alter the application process in higher education, officials also want to impose their worldview onto the foundation of science itself. They’ve set their sights on its lingua franca─mathematics─and their reform campaign offers a glimpse of where the United States may be headed.
Norm Matloff, a computer science professor at U.C. Davis, reports that the philosophical undercurrents driving the new guidelines include the notions that showing your work and arriving at the “right” answer aren’t important since they’re relics of “white supremacy.” They also include the belief that accelerated tracks of instruction for gifted students that include more difficult classes like calculus should be avoided.
If you’re surprised by these educational tenets, rest assured that you’re not alone. A group that includes several hundred university professors signed an open letter to Governor Gavin Newsom warning him that “there is no realistic hope for a more fair, just, equal and well-stewarded society if our schools uproot long-proven, reliable and highly effective math methods and instead try to build a mathless Brave New World on a foundation of unsound ideology.”
The warning signs have been visible for some time and now the chickens are coming home to roost. In the 2020-2021 school year the California school system lost over 160,000 students compared to the previous year.
One California father (whom I’ll refer to as Boomer since he asked not to be identified) recently established his own school in the Bay Area. He notes that “our local public school was teaching math at a level about two years behind the international best-practice standard. The fourth grade students were still mastering addition, and just being exposed to multiplication tables.”
After several years of first-hand experience of this, Boomer pulled his daughter out of public education when he realized that the work required to compensate for the local school’s deficiencies was more effort than it was worth. According to Boomer, “we had, for a number of years, relied upon private after-school and weekend supplemental classes just to provide our daughter appropriate grade-level work, especially in math. The combined financial cost and extra time spent doing this in addition to public school was stressful.”
Boomer, who graduated from U.C. Berkeley with a degree in physics, remarks that “the calculus taught in American high schools is quite basic and hardly even provides the minimum of foundations to allow a student to survive, let alone thrive, in a competitive college in any math-heavy major.”
In other words, calculus isn’t some lofty goal that administrators should frown on as an emblem of white supremacy. It’s the bare minimum that anyone interested in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) degree will need to satisfy as a prerequisite. Such that California’s attempt to level the field will likely drive more parents to opt out of public schools and thereby further aggravate the performance gap.
Boomer points out that “both the U.C. and CSU system spend enormous amounts of money on remedial courses, essentially teaching kids what they should have learned in high school. This takes resources from other programs and courses, prolongs the time taken to graduate, and generally gums up the system. We should, therefore, be teaching more math in high school, not less! Closing the gap should be done by lifting up the bottom, not cutting off the top!”
If there is a logical bedrock underneath the hard sciences, where assertions must be formally and methodically verified to be true or false (in other words, “right” or “wrong”), it is the discipline of mathematics, an intellectual tradition with roots that go back thousands of years to Pythagoras and Thales of Miletus, providing the basis for electrodynamics, astrophysics, and quantum mechanics—developments that altered the course of history. To depict ideas like correctness and rigor as “racist” exhibits a remarkable lack of understanding, particularly in basic high school subjects like algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus which are all tightly demarcated areas of study.
In fact, this woke mindset is more than just irrational; it’s dangerous. Absolute truth exists, and rejecting it by reflexively fleeing into academic safe spaces that cater to political agendas can lead to dark corners of authoritarianism, places that are ruled by fanatics, where 2+2=5 and “nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
Well intentioned efforts to weaken standards reflect the myopia of the hard left. Progressive activists are so fixated on equality that it literally consumes everything else. America’s man of letters, Kurt Vonnegut, poked fun at this fetish in a satirical story entitled Harrison Bergeron.
Vonnegut’s parable takes place in a distant future where the government, under the auspices of the United States Handicapper General, ensures that gifted people are unable to surpass their peers by fitting everyone with various handicap devices to guarantee that “Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.” Should a citizen have the audacity to shed his handicap restraints and distinguish himself, he would be quickly dispatched by the Handicapper General in the form of one Diana Moon Glampers, a grim lady who wields a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Heaven help the enterprising 12th grader who steps out of line in and tries to get a leg up on calculus while Glampers is on patrol.
You’ve got to hand it to Vonnegut’s biting wit, because it vividly illustrates the left’s blinkered moral certainty and how it fails to take into account larger issues. Systemic aspects of society that define the trajectory of a nation over time as a whole—like feedback, balance, and resilience—are vitally important as the United States doesn’t stand alone on the world stage. There are other countries out there actively pursuing their interests at our expense.
As Boomer warns:
All you need to do is look at the international comparisons of students’ test performance (PISA or TIMSS testing, for example) to see how far behind our kids are lagging those from competing countries.
Even more alarming is the composition of university STEM majors, and especially graduate level STEM programs, which tend to be overwhelmingly composed of foreign students. Those are the students who will be building the future…. clearly we are going backwards educationally while other countries, especially our chief economic and military competitors, forge ahead.
Hence, if American educational systems don’t reward achievement and raise expectations; if institutions anchor gifted students to the least common denominator, instead of allowing them to excel; if we put feelings before facts and substitute quantifiable advancement with culture war totems, then America will lack the long-term strength to innovate, and rest assured there will finally come a day when another nation that doesn’t suffer from these problems will overtake us. The past reveals societies that are technically less sophisticated tend to be dominated by those that are. There are already unsettling indications that America is in a state of decline.
Bill Blunden is an independent investigator focusing on information security, anti-forensics, and institutional analysis. He is the author of several books, including The Rootkit Arsenal and Behold a Pale Farce: Cyberwar, Threat Inflation, and the Malware-Industrial Complex. Bill is the lead investigator at Below Gotham Labs.