It wasn’t two weeks into summer vacation before my 16-year-old son’s sojourn was interrupted by the arrival of a pre-calculus packet. The instructions contained within are clear enough: It was to be completed before August. It sat on our kitchen counter, a thick document of hieroglyphic-like symbols, eliciting glares of resentment while reminding us that math evidently matters a bit more than other subjects. Mathematics, University of Exeter education professor Paul Ernest once observed, «has a uniquely privileged status in education as the only subject that is taught universally and to all ages in schools.» And, at least in my house, that schooling continues over the summer too.
What’s with this never-ending pedagogical obsession with numbers? Perhaps the most common compliment math devotees pay their subject is that it’s unambiguously logical. Somewhere among the infinite variety of wrong answers to a math problem, there’s a right one, and discovering that sole nugget of truth is — as anyone who has successfully completed a proof knows — not only deeply satisfying, but math educators say it hones an array of problem solving skills relevant to negotiating real-world problems relevant to the global economy. Nations fret over their population’s math literacy for good reason.
But could such impersonal and objective assurance in the «one correct answer» — as well as the means through which you reach it — teach students to be similarly calculating and assured when it comes to daily moral conundrums that do not lend themselves to such clarity? Might the overarching quest to find the «right» answer obscure the thornier possibility that we’re trying to solve the wrong problems?
This is the ultimate concern explored by Ernest, the University of Exeter professor, in a recent issue of The Philosophy of Mathematics Education Today. While Ernest stresses his deep love of mathematics, seeing it as «a wonderful language for describing the world,» he fears that a singular focus on mathematics — at least the way it’s usually taught — might lead to «ethical neutrality,» a habit of mind that supports a «dehumanizing outlook» on less concrete matters. Cold numerical logic, he believes, trains students to detach meaning from our intellectual and emotional lives; such «separation of values,» he argues, «can be damaging when applied beyond mathematics to social and human issues.» Unless «very carefully monitored and checked,» Ernest continues, «the application of mathematics in society can be deleterious to our humanity.»
His solution: We start teaching formal ethics and philosophy alongside even the most rudimentary math. Most students educated in the Western world never encounter a basic ethics course; the rest do in college, when they are no longer taking math courses. Given the clear overlap between, to cite only one example, utilitarian ethics (a moral theory that relies on measuring and maximizing happiness) and mathematical calculation, teaching these subjects together seems like a no-brainer. Otherwise, Ernest, thinks, the «collateral damage of learning mathematics» will only persist.
A disturbing look into the impact of math and ethical decision-making can be found in Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. O’Neil explored the 2008 housing crisis through the algorithms designed «by fallible human beings.» These human beings were good mathematicians — they solved the right problems to make their models work.
But, as O’Neil writes, «many of these models encoded human prejudice, misunderstanding, and bias into the software systems that increasingly managed our lives.» Among other consequences, the crisis wiped out more African-American wealth than any other event in history aside from slavery. O’Neil concludes that, «Like gods, these mathematical models were opaque, their workings invisible to all but the highest priests in their domain: mathematicians and computer scientists.»
The result was much as Ernest’s hypothesis predicts: A series of algorithms that represented the right answers to the wrong questions. And people’s lives were ruined. Would mathematical attention to ethics — an emphasis imposed early in math education — have resulted in a different outcome? Could this «collateral damage» of knowing numbers and data have been avoided? Did that math packet sitting on my kitchen counter deserve an accompanying packet on moral theory? A number of scholars are beginning to think the answer is yes.
This story originally appeared as For all the benefits of studying mathematics, some critics see a dark side on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine’s newsletter and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.