“Mathematics is political.”
We became academics because we were fascinated with an idea. Just one idea, whatever it was. We learned how to pursue it, chase it up and down, through hell and high water. We learned how an idea is like a seed that needs water. We learned how to water it. We learned how to teach other people to water it. We watched it grow and maybe even blossom. We talked about it to people we didn’t know. We tried to show others how interesting it is. We tried to protect the idea of the idea.
My brother-in-law once asked me what my idea was. I said, the politics of knowledge production. He looked like I had asked him to eat worms. End of conversation. I sat next to a nice man on an airplane once and got to chatting. He asked me what my idea was. I said, the politics of knowledge production. He got the wormy look. End of conversation.
That was some years ago. I think my brother-in-law and the airplane guy had a point. If I couldn’t say a sentence with “a thing” in it, like the name of a place or a person, what was the point? Egghead. Now if someone asks me that question, I produce a sentence that has the name of a place or a person or a thing in it. Fair enough. I realize that sometimes in pursuit of the survival of the idea, I have become overly solicitous, a hovering parent. My instinct was to wrap my idea in many layers of conceptual down jackets before I sent it out into the world.
One of the reasons for this, I hasten to add, is that there are so many idea-growth-haters out there. We should produce reliable, sweet-ear-of-corn-type ideas. The rest are just weeds. Why pay people to produce weeds?
Prof. Rochelle Gutierrez is our UIUC colleague in math education. Her idea, arrived at after more than 15 years of thought, watering, nurturing, is that mathematics is political. She says that the reason that math is taught as if all phenomena could be distilled into one narrow framework is because some people benefit from teaching it that way. The people who benefit from defining the mastery of narrow frameworks as intelligence are the same people who assume that pale skin bestows superiority. And so the nice sweet corn always produces more nice sweet corn.
Imagine classrooms of low-income urban black and brown students in hoodies debating the relative strengths and weaknesses of Mayan, Yoruba, and German mathematical paradigms and on that basis, concluding that mathematical certainty is a flawed concept. Ouch. Imagine them then taking well-informed issue with social policies (credit scores, incarceration risk assessments, funding for neighborhood schools) built on narrow mathematical models that exclude them because they are deemed “unworthy and expendable.” More ouch.
In October 2017, Rochelle Gutierrez was targeted by a barrage of sweet corn fans, outraged that the field of math education had sprouted such a weed. As we all know, in our vitriolic age, outrage leads straight to calls – not for people to explain their ideas – but for them to lose their jobs, be disbarred, and publicly humiliated.
Rochelle has not backed down, and she has received support from many quarters. She has held workshops for local teachers and UI graduate students about her ideas and about surviving in the blast furnace of public attack. The then-interim provost, Prof. John Wilkin, told The News-Gazette that UIUC believes in academic freedom, that Prof. Gutierrez is a respected member of the academic community, and that “the issues around equity and access to education are real.”
We salute Rochelle for standing up for the rights of teachers and students to learn about the world in new (and old) ways. We should take the then-interim provost up on his declaration of academic freedom, and tend a thousand community gardens – and may the weeds and flowers bloom. With all due respect to the city of Urbana’s summer programming, a good university cannot be the same thing as a sweet corn festival.
 Rochelle Guttierrez, “Why (Urban) Mathematics Teachers Need Political Knowledge,” Journal of Urban Mathematics Education 6:2 (2013), p. 7-19.
 Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (Crown: New York, 2016).
 “UI defends professor after book chapter draws attention,” The News-Gazette, 10/26/2017.