It’s Time to Cancel ‘Woke’ Math

Bill Gates spent $140 million to create an allegedly “anti-racist” math curriculum.

I am a math professor at an historically black college. I’m the son of an historian who chaired the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at a State University of New York college. I’m someone who has received 800 hate messages from supporters of the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Racism is not merely an academic matter to me.

But Bill Gates’s initiative is itself racist, in that it calls quite good pedagogical practices “white supremacist.”

I won Oxford University’s top math awards for graduate students and I graduated summa cum laude with a degree in mathematics from Harvard University with the second-highest GPA in my graduating class. So I suppose I have some credibility when it comes to knowing how to train students in math.

Gates’s “anti-racist” curriculum claims that having students raise their hands before speaking promotes “white supremacy.” His surrogates are therefore declaring that being orderly is something only whites do.

The document presenting this curriculum makes the weird claim that having only a few students answer questions represents “power hoarding.” Besides the fact that, outside of law school, teachers usually don’t limit who can answer a question, apparently the authors of the curriculum have never heard of Mansa Musa.

Gates’ authors also say the idea that someone could be “good” at math is “white supremacy.” Tell that to the Egyptian mathematician Euclid! 

One of the craziest parts of the document claims the fact that the “focus is on getting the ‘right’ answer” somehow represents “white supremacy.” A surefire way to produce NASA engineers is to tell students that getting the “right” answer (in quotation marks!) is optional. The contempt the authors of this report have for non-whites is palpable.

Or are Gates’s authors exceedingly clever? They write, “Teachers are teachers and students are learners.” No one can disagree with this tautology. Oh, wait, Gates’ authors do.

They also criticize the idea that “teachers or other experts can and should correct mistakes.” I won’t say anything more about that.

Gates’ guidelines propose to “[e]xpose students to mathematicians of color, particularly women of color and queer mathematicans [sic] of color.” What does this have to do with racism? Same-sex liaisons are illegal in some 35 African countries. One can hardly claim that such attitudes are unique to “white supremacists.”

The document also states, “This thinking creates meritocracy in the classroom.” This is the first time we’ve ever seen someone suggest that “meritocracy” is bad!

Bizarrely, Gates’ authors advise teachers to “[c]hallenge the notion that if a student did not pass one course they will not be ‘successful’ in the next course.” That is, in fact, how math works: if you fail Calculus II, you won’t pass Calculus III.

Elsewhere, Gates’ authors want teachers to ask, “Who is not present in the gifted and honors classrooms?” Er . . . the students who are not gifted? Gates’ authors suggest incorporating “[c]ommunity circles or storytelling circles, incorporating dance, music, song, call and response, and other cultural ways of communicating.” Amusingly, they are unaware that they are reinforcing stereotypes that African-Americans are good dancers. (We are.) 

It’s true: Race kept the respected mathematician David Blackwell out of Princeton University’s math building in 1941. We’ll concede, however, that direct racism is not the sole reason why few African-Americans or Latinos become mathematicians. Today’s students are not like Booker T. Washington or W. E. B. DuBois; students today have far less respect for teachers or education than most did a century ago. When I mentioned the great mathematician Ramanujan and magic squares to the students at an urban high school, one girl shouted, “We don’t care!” 

I tried to point out to the students that education was the route by which they could escape their current circumstances, that people like Frederick Douglass had endured far worse than a ghetto upbringing, and emerged victorious. Rather than be inspired to rise to the example of Douglass, one girl said that maybe she had a different “learning style” than he. 

I taught an advanced class on enumerative combinatorics to teens at a public school in the New York City area; most of the students who attended were of African descent, and one black girl, Liza, whose father came from Guyana, was faster than I was at calculations I had done several times before. 

What accounts for the difference? Immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean are the most highly educated segment of the U.S. population. Once, I was delighted to see that, of the 17 or so students I was teaching in Harlem, four of them, on their own time, were playing around with quadratic equations: a Hispanic, a Nigerian, and two Haitians. My brother, a certified teacher, quipped that the children of Haiti would swim to America if they knew they could get into a free public school.

The only legitimate point the authors of the anti-racist curriculum could have made is if they had focused on how math books often refer to the “ancient” Greeks, attributing the discovery of triangles to them. But the word “Greek” does not appear in the 82-page document on racism. They do suggest teachers ask, “Why do you think we call it Pythagorean’s theorem [sic], when it was used before he was even born?” but even there they fail: because it is the Pythagorean Theorem or Pythagoras’ Theorem. Elsewhere, they write, “A prime example is how matrices is [sic] considered a precalculus standard.” Who wrote this error-riddled document? A teacher?

We know what it takes to improve math education and to get more black students to excel in math. My three brothers and I, all graduates of Harvard University or Harvard Law School or both, are the living proof.

Bill Gates, give us a call. It won’t cost you a dime.

Editor’s note: Parts of this essay appeared in the Berkeley Daily Planet and The Baltimore Sun.


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About Jonathan David Farley

Dr. Jonathan David Farley was named one of Ebony's “30 Leaders of the Future” and was the Harvard Foundation’s Scientist of the Year in 2004. Seed magazine named him one of “15 people who have shaped the global conversation about science in 2005.” He has written for the New York Times, Time, and The Guardian.

Photo: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images