University of Illinois math professor Rochelle Gutierrez has triggered a national controversy over her recent anthology for math educators entitled, “Building Support for Scholarly Practices in Mathematics Methods.” Gutierrez suggests that mathematic tends to perpetuate white privilege that must be actively addressed in classrooms. For many, math is one subject that was viewed inherently objective and unbiased in its emphasis. Albert Einstein and others saw beauty in math. He stated “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.” Yet, Gutierrez appears to see the “politics that mathematics brings” and white privilege.
Gutierrez warns that “School mathematics curricula emphasizing terms like Pythagorean Theorem and pi perpetuate a perception that mathematics was largely developed by Greeks and other Europeans.” She adds “On many levels, mathematics itself operates as whiteness. Who gets credit for doing and developing mathematics, who is capable in mathematics, and who is seen as part of the mathematical community is generally viewed as white.”
Gutierrez raises these same views in her 2013 academic article entitled Why (Urban) Mathematics Teachers Need Political Knowledge in the Journal of Urban Mathematics Education. She wrote that “similar to whiteness, mathematics holds unearned privilege in society.” She emphasized that she was going beyond earlier writers who maintained that “mathematics education (emphasis added) operates as White institutional space. I am arguing that mathematics itself operates as whiteness.”
Gutierrez seeks to inject “political knowledge” into math classes to foster a “greater awareness of the unearned privilege that mathematics holds in society,.” She ties math to the ever-expanding notions of “microaggressions” and warns that many students “have experienced microaggressions from participating in math classrooms… [where people are] judged by whether they can reason abstractly.”
While I do not agree with much of what I read in the article, which I found hyperbolic and superficial. However, I also disagree with some of the responses. Critics have called for Gutierrez to be removed from her position. Gutierrez is advancing her intellectual view of the role and barriers of mathematic education in the United States. Her voice adds to the broader debate over the influence of privilege or race on subjects. One can disagree with those views while defending Gutierrez’ right to articulate and defend them.
Guiterrez has a stellar background that includes a Ph.D., in Curriculum and Instruction, from University of Chicago as well as a M.A. from Chicago and a B.A. in Human Biology from Stanford University. Her bio states that “Dr. Gutierrez’ scholarship focuses on equity issues in mathematics education, paying particular attention to how race, class, and language affect teaching and learning.”
In the end, it is a shame to see math treated as a field of privilege when many of us view it as a field of pure intellectual pursuit and bias neutrality. Either the math is there or it is not. The race of the mathematician will not change the outcome. Moreover, the way to fight any bias is to leave “political knowledge” outside of the classroom. Guiterrez has attracted some cache by calling for teachers to look beyond the numbers to find white privilege. Yet the danger is importing extrinsic influences into an area that is wonderfully self-contained and politically neutral. Indeed, many minorities sought math careers because it is a field premised on objective measurement. That is why I was left unconvinced by the earlier academic article. To use a valuable expression, “the numbers simply do not add up.”