Rochelle Gutierrez: The Hero Mathematics Needs and Deserves
What happens when a prominent, minority female mathematician challenges the status quo of math education — namely its unchecked bias for white contributions/discoveries? Well, in the age of social media and hiding behind its walls, you get a tsunami of anger, hate and, not too ironically, blatant racism. Some might think this is the first time a volley addressing the entrenched “whiteness” of math history/education has been launched.
It’s not. Rochelle — justifiably— merely stoked the dwindling embers of calling out false eurocentric mathematical ideas. The hottest battle cry for correcting the cliched trajectory of math history came in the form of the book, Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics, first released in 1992. It is now in its third printing.
The genesis of the book was in part due to the arrogant assertion by Morris Kline regarding math contribution by other cultures.
“The mathematics of Egyptians and Babylonians is the scrawling of children just learning to write, as opposed to great literature”
Joseph’s first chapter of the book is devoted to its justification. The second chapter deals with the math of Native Americans. There are eleven chapters in total. Most high school curriculum, even if given the opportunity, would not have enough time to teach the densely rich mathematics contained within.
A recent, a well-timed response to Rochelle Gutierrez’s well-placed criticism of math’s historic bias/prejudices was recently written by Jose Vilson entitled “Math Was Never Neutral”. And, perhaps not too ironically, it was published in a new blog space called Q.E.D., which is inspired by a quasi-punk motto — Questioning Every Dogma.
The founder of Q.E.D. is Junaid Mubeen. He wrote a piece in early 2017 called “Mathematics Without History is Soulless” He referenced the Rhind papyrus right off the bat — an ironic, have a seat, Morris Kline.
As one of the co-editors of Q.E.D., I feel that I am morally compelled to do more than support Rochelle — I need to call out the cowards, misinformed, jealous, hateful, and those who have been on the wrong side of the equity equation of mathematics. I also need to call them out in language that is a deep obligation to my own personal ethics/responsiveness. Namely, I need to act in a way that is in sync with Newton’s Third Law: For every action there will be an equal and opposite reaction.
What does that mean here? It means I am going to try and invalidate the arrogance and smugness that laces the hateful thought that has crawled out from the sewers of social media. To attempt to nullify the tsunami of mathematical ignorance that has emerged, a complete smash-mouth article — sometimes profanity-laced — will be the card that I deal back to what is basically an alt-right math movement. Driven by angry parents(good intentions with bad information), and then lit by the kerosene of a few university professors and fringe players — there are virtually no K-12 educators in their wolf pack — the back-to-basics crew(motley) has been, unsurprisingly, home to the slandering of Rochelle Gutierrez and the work she has done.
Writing in the medium of raw honesty is the most powerful way I can communicate my passionate support for the courage of Rochelle Gutierrez, and punch back with a force that often is absent in academic discussion — the simple…fuck off.
Mark Manson’s book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, has gone on to become a New York Times Bestseller. The principal of the school where my kids go is currently reading it. She has a heart of gold, and the book is helping her do what is best for her teachers and students. Glen Friedman, who is probably my generation’s greatest photographer, set the gold standard for heroic disobedience 20 years ago. The book sits on a shelf on my desk. I look it at every day for inspiration…
As someone who played hockey for 40 years, seeing the gutless beating up of Gutierrez — one of our star players — cannot go unchecked. The flagrant fouls, the cheap shots, and the verbal abuse needs some old time retribution. I will need some Kafka inspiration to get charged up…as I lace up my skates.
You know who would be on social media right now defending Gutierrez with unbridled ferocity? Carl Friedrich Gauss. Only one of the most important and gifted mathematicians of all time. But, since the Back-to-Basics movement has only a basic knowledge of math history to begin with, they won’t know that he penned one of the greatest letters ever — to Sophie Germain, for admiring her courage and tenacity. Here is an excerpt from the actual letter.
The part about “superior genius” is a 19th century mic drop. So, unless you have Gaussian-like math ability, you probably need to sit down and shut the fuck up for, I don’t know, the rest of your life on this matter!
If you trace the breadcrumbs back on many of these vile comments against Gutierrez, you will find, as I have alluded to, the pitchfork, back-to-basics community that is hitching itself to the wagon(literally) of testing and knowledge. You know who was slapping down the benign accumulation of knowledge 100 years ago? Alfred North Whitehead. One of the authors of Principia Mathematicia, which is listed as #23 in the Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the 20th century, according to Modern Library. When he wasn’t helping write a universal book of axioms and truths for mathematics, he was criticizing the educational malaise of England — the same malaise that is trying to make a comeback, and is the home of the people who have been attacking Gutierrez relentlessly.
In addition, both Russell and Whitehead championed the intellectual freedom/liberty of women. In his essay Aims of Education, first delivered in 1916, Whitehead echoed the sentiment of Gauss regarding women:
That is the reason why uneducated clever women, who have seen much of the world, are in middle life so much the most cultured part of the community. They have been saved from this horrible burden of inert ideas. Every intellectual revolution which has ever stirred humanity into greatness has been a passionate protest against inert ideas. Then, alas, with pathetic ignorance of human psychology, it has proceeded by some educational scheme to bind humanity afresh with inert ideas of its own fashioning.
At this point, it would be embarrassing for the knuckle-dragging detractors to be schooled again by the very fuckin’ faux history they are married to — that mathematics was solely created in the Western Hemisphere and/or by white men in white lab coats extracting out inert math facts/formulas in a sterilized and dehumanized laboratory. I mean didn’t Paul Lockhart basically invalidate these folks with his A Mathematician’s Lament over a decade ago? I mean you must be a special kind of stupid to show up to your own roast 10 years late.
A day late and a dollar short? Pffft…more like a generation late and the GDP of a small country short.
I don’t know how people continue to suck from the dried teats of assessment/only factual fluency with such confidence and swagger, and then think it can skate on the ice of math education — never mind start playing like The Hanson Brothers. Petitions and letters in support of Gutierrez go a long way, but so does getting pissed off, and knocking out some metaphorical teeth, and returning these populist snowflakes back to the school. Well in their case, the one-room schoolhouse, replete with chalk, school bell, and paddles. At this point, if any of the Back-To-Basics are still reading and are offended, please remember being offended only means you are offended — it doesn’t mean you are right. Except alt-right…
Rochelle Gutierrez probably never thought she would receive so much backlash for making comments that address a tired and historic problem in math education — the shadowing of other cultures/women/minorities into the margins with faint footnotes. Regrettably, there are just a lot of ignorant and racist people in the world who wouldn’t understand entitlement/white privilege if it hit them broadside across the head. Just because you memorized your times tables and blindly cross-multiplied 25 years ago doesn’t give you a ticket to the discussion on math history — unless you think looking like an idiot is going to be fashionable soon.
That is why these folks cannot be afforded any voice in the discussion of mathematics — the global contributions of mathematics are not negotiable. You either embrace them or you, as we have seen, marginalize, ignore or ridicule them.
The latter only deserves…
So, on behalf of Russell, Whitehead, Gauss, Germain, Ramanujan, Seki, Aryabhata, Liu Hui, Khayyan, Brahmagupta, Lovelace, Noether, Blackwell, Tapia and the thousands who have toiled in mathematics with vigor and passion — and sometimes anonymity — WE STAND WITH ROCHELLE GUTIERREZ!
She is a beacon of light that illuminates mathematics as opposed to those who darken it with ignorance and hate. The threat to our mathematical democracy should NOT be ignored — because this is exactly what these people represent.
This century belongs to the humanity, equity, truth, justice, beauty, love and play that has been silenced or trivialized for far, far too long in mathematics. Mathematics, like education, which it is embedded in, is a creative enterprise.
The rest of you? Load up your wagons and fuck right back off to the Dickensian squalor of education that you came from. Your shipment of fail will be awaiting you…and maybe a young Alfred North Whitehead, who will thrilled to know of your advocacy for a 100 year-old problem of inert knowledge.
If you have response that is a rebuttal to all of this, I patiently await your reply — even if it is cobbled by people who have zero experience with K to 12 content/pedagogy.
Did I got too hard? Nope. Just being subtle and artistic…