Teaching Social Justice Through Mathematics
Social justice is the belief that all individuals are invaluable members of our society, that all people can contribute to the betterment of our society. Social justice means resources are distributed equitably, social power and privilege are non-existent, and mutual responsibility is characterized in all individuals. Social justice is not an idealized concept; it is possible and likely to be achieved through critical analysis of oppressive systems and action toward liberation.
In order to achieve the goals of a socially just world, it is essential for schools to incorporate social justice issues into their standard academic curriculum. We need to educate our students to be reflective, caring, and active citizens in our world, a world where people of different cultures, races, and religions are required to work together. As educators, we are morally obligated to prepare our students for the world around them. However, one cannot teach for social justice without an understanding of and awareness for the various forms of oppression within our society. Educators must recognize the power of individual, social, and institutional oppression and the impact these systems have on all members of our society. Educators who are able to recognize and examine the inequalities within schools and society coupled with a process for self-awareness surrounding issues of race, class, ability, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and age will be agents of change within the classroom and able to help students become agents of change.
Is this all possible within the walls of our classrooms? Yes! And in all subjects and on all levels. Mathematics is often believed to be neutral territory, sequences and logarithms to be taught and learned as separate entities from the rest of our lives. However, nothing, including the study of mathematics, is ever neutral. Mathematic courses seem to be one of the most likely places to learn about social justice issues. Mathematical literacy is often considered a gatekeeper to higher learning opportunities; and it is well-known that one’s possible economic income increases substantially with the number of mathematical courses taken. Studies also show that women, students of color, students from low socio-economic backgrounds, and students with learning differences are more frequently tracked into lower level mathematics courses, disabling them from enrolling in the courses that might have a positive impact on their membership in society. While mathematic courses appear ideal to teach students about social justice issues, many teachers often shy away from incorporating these real-world contexts into their curriculum. However, I have found that students respond positively to the personal connections they may face when learning mathematics through a social justice lens.
When teaching my Precalculus classes about exponential and logarithmic functions, we always talk about credit card rates and the history of credit cards. This will lead us into discussions about other interest bearing systems such as banking and payday lenders. Inevitably, we talk about who uses which systems and why, delving pretty deeply into discussions about socio-economic class and capitalism. When my Algebra I class was completing their unit on ratios and proportions, we utilized data from the MA state census to estimate future data about specific cities and their population. We discussed the location of each city, whether urban or rural, and the racial make-up of the cities. We talked about the educational status of the residents of these cities, the median household income, and the homeownership rate of each city. Students were able to talk about the historical perspective of the ‘education gap’ and how the underlying basis of racism still surrounds each of us daily. In Geometry, we might discuss how to use the Pythagorean Theorem to build the safest and most useful accessibility ramp of a particular building on campus. Or we can talk about global poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth through the study of data and graphical representations. The possibilities are endless; it just takes individual desire and creativity to make the difference.