A teacher trying his best to make math enjoyable for students.

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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Making Room for Ethics in Math Class

I find there is a tendency for people to present math as a value-free or unbiased subject, meaning there is no place for an ethics discussion in mathematics. When discussing the incorporation of social justice into math class, the conversation inevitably turns to examples like using statistics to expose sexism in the workplace. However, especially when teaching in low-income communities, both rural and urban, we must recognize that math has been used to ensure poverty continues to exist. Credit card companies, predatory lenders, and insurance companies have all used math to make more money, while contributing to the oppression of others. Math is used to assess the risk of insuring someone, therefore determining who can afford insurance and who can’t. Thus, the argument can be made that math is neutral in some capacities, but as soon as applications are designed, math is anything but neutral. Mathematicians have contributed to the field of economics through optimization, but that means using math to make decisions that have very real consequences for regular people. But sitting in an office making these decisions means not having to see the consequences of one’s work. Ignorance does not mean excusal from responsibility. In the end, I am saying that ethics has a place in the math curriculum and there should be discussion as to how math has consequences in the lives of our students. Instead of prepping students for industry by giving them applications without context, we should be teaching kids how to be creative problem solvers while understanding their decisions can dramatically impact the lives of others whether they immediately recognize this fact or not. I am hoping to help develop citizens of this world, not drones who can be used by industry without understanding the role of work in society. Corporations, governments, nonprofits, and any other institution all have missions, therefore work for any organization means contributing to the leader’s vision. We must therefore help students understand that they need to be sure their values align with the organization they choose to join. As I am writing this, I can only think of the scene from Goodwill Hunting where Matt Damon is in an interview with the National Security Agency (NSA). Check it out below:


This is a clear example of someone who is incredibly gifted in mathematics, yet understands his potential role in an ever more complex society. So as we continue to do as little damage as possible to this next generation, let us think long and hard about what the goals of public education are and if these goals really meet the hopes of students and educators and the needs of the planet. Personally, I see content standards and mathematical practice standards, but I do not see any discussion of ethics within these standards. I see industry working to define the desired outcomes of public education as the human aspects of education are increasingly marginalized. STEM and the humanities are not mutually exclusive, but need each other to produce humans capable of positively shaping the future. I will now step off my soap box. Thanks for reading and I am very open to comments.