A different third R: radical math.

Author:Frankenstein, Marilyn

Mathematical literacy is more than the ability to calculate. It is the ability to reason quantitatively, the ability to use numbers to clarify issues and to support or refute opinions. Yet the proliferation of arithmetic courses at the college level is evidence that people are not learning even basic computation skills in school. Too many adults cannot use numbers effectively in their daily lives. This article will briefly examine the causes of this situation and will outline a basic arithmetic course that not only teaches adults math effectively, but raises their political consciousness and empowers them to analyze and question the status quo, and to fight back.

The reasons why people aren't learning math involve the scandals of education in our society: too many teachers babysit instead of helping students learn; too many teachers convey their own hatred or fear of math to their students; the math curriculum is irrelevant to students' lives; the math curriculum is boring. More complex reasons involve the scandals of our society: sexual stereotyping leads many women to believe that learning math undermines their femininity; intellectual stereotyping leads many people to believe that learning math is too hard for them; meaningless, boring school work serves to prepare people for meaningless, boring jobs.

Underlying all these scandals is the fact that the ruling class can more effectively keep people oppressed when these people cannot break through the numerical lies and obfuscations thrown at them daily. A mathematically illiterate populace can be lulled by the media into believing, for example, that racism is disappearing, for it will not think to answer back that median black income was 61 percent of median white income in 1969 and only 57 percent in 1977, that official black youth unemployment was 45 percent in 1979 compared to 16 percent for white youth, or that nonwhite infant mortality rates were 21.7 per 1,000 births in 1977 compared to 12.3 per 1,000 births for whites. When promoters of nuclear energy argue that nuclear power plants provide 12 percent of our electricity, only a mathematically sophisticated populace could counter that nuclear energy provides just 3 per cent of our total energy needs. (1)

Most college arithmetic courses emphasize rote computation drills and word problems whose solutions fit a few simple patterns. They are based on what Paulo Freire calls "banking" methods: "expert" teachers deposit knowledge in the presumably blank minds of their students; students memorize the required rules and expect future dividends. (2) At best, such courses make people minimally proficient in basic math and able to get somewhat better paying jobs than those who can't pass math skills competence tests. But they do not help people learn to think critically or to use numbers in their daily lives. At worst, they train people to follow rules obediently, without understanding, and to take their proper place in society, without questioning.

The radical math literacy course which I will describe is based on the idea, expressed by Freire, that illiterates "are not marginal to the structure [of society], but oppressed ... within it. Alienated ... they cannot overcome their dependency by 'incorporation' into the very structure responsible for their dependency. There is no other road to humanization--theirs as well as everyone else's--but authentic transformation of the dehumanizing structure." (3) The content of this course teaches arithmetic while simultaneously raising political consciousness. Its methods try to break down traditional authoritarian teacher-student relationships by giving students meaningful control over their learning process. The aim of the course is to educate people to want radical social change while giving them both the math literacy tools necessary to challenge ruling ideas and the cooperative learning experiences necessary to create and live in a new society.

Education is never neutral. Traditional education and daily life bombard students with oppressive pro-capitalist ideology. A trivial application like totaling a grocery bill carries the non-neutral message that paying for food is natural. Even traditional math courses which provide no real life data carry the hidden message that learning math has nothing to do with learning to understand and control the world. Radical courses such as this try to show that there is another point of view. I believe the best we can do as teachers is to tell students our own biases and encourage them to use numbers to support whatever opposing views they hold. (4) By having students examine issues quantitatively and by providing data that most students would not otherwise obtain, we are not feeding students propaganda, but helping them to think critically and to ask incisive questions about the conditions of society.


In this radical math course, arithmetic skills are learned through political application. (5) In addition to raising students' political consciousness by using numbers to expose...

To continue reading