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One Step Forward, Three Steps Back
An encouraging development regarding academic freedom in Sweden is countered by three regressive academic developments in the US (and Canada).
Good News in Sweden
Last week began with a rare bit of good news. In Sweden, following a television news program’s documentary series on cancel culture issues at Konstfack and Uppsala Universities—where 33% of lecturers in the humanities said their use of language when speaking about race or sensitive issues in classes was restricted—the Minister of Education, Mats Persson has decided to take action.
As the Minister correctly put it: “It is completely unacceptable. At universities and in higher education, certain words cannot be forbidden to use.” Referring to academic freedom he added “Individual researchers should not be silenced, you should have your academic freedom”.
In response to the reviews by the program Kalla Fakta Persson has mandated that a review of the current situation be carried out by the University Chancellor’s office. The office must conduct case studies and map potential threats to free inquiry and dissemination of knowledge. It must promote “a culture that allows the free pursuit of knowledge”.
This is a welcome step, and one can only hope that it will be effective in Sweden and that it might send a message more broadly to other universities in the West.
ASU enforces DEI ideology
The libertarian Goldwater Institute has just released a report that highlights how Arizona’s public universities has jumped into the DEI mandate bandwagon with both feet.
The new report argues that these taxpayer-funded institutions should not be enforcing political ideologies which reflect the political biases of faculty and administrators. It points out, for example at Arizona State University (ASU), Democrats outnumber Republicans on the faculty by a ratio of more than 12 to 1.
While this ratio may discourage the right-leaning Goldwater Institute, taken by itself it is neither problematic, nor surprising—the Republican party in Arizona moved beyond goofy years ago, and continues, for example, to deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election, long after it was factually demonstrated to have not been corrupted.
Of real concern however, is the administrative requirement at Arizona’s universities that mandate allegiance to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion statements that are often intellectually questionable.
It was reported that at ASU, for example, that 81% of job postings now require “diversity statements” that mandate conformity to DEI goals,. These include requiring candidates to replace traditional cover letters with a DEI statement, providing up to two full pages detailing their commitment to DEI requirements, and their past activism in this regarding, and “calling on applicants to endorse Critical Race Theory-based concepts such as ‘intersectional personal identities””.
The Goldwater Institute has argued that use of these mandates may violate the state’s constitutional ban on the use of political tests in public educational institutions, and may also violate several aspects of protected first amendment speech.
I cannot comment with any authority on these legal issues, but my direct academic experience suggests that both the administrative cost overhead wasted on these DEI offices at the University, and their intrusive and negative impact on academic freedom and collegiality, is tragic.
More Nuttiness in Chemistry:
Jerry Coyne has written in depth about a recent ridiculous paper in the Journal of Chemical Education that was brought to our attention by our colleague Anna Krylov at USC. It reflects the real tragedy that can result in hiring individuals to teach science at universities when those individuals appear to have very little understanding of the nature of science themselves, and instead impose their ideological sterility on unsuspecting students.
It is written by a group of authors from several departments at East Carolina University and neighboring institutions, including several in science departments such as biology, chemistry, neuroscience and the medical school, along with a few others from sociology and intergovernmental affairs whose ignorance of chemistry might be more easily forgiven.
The article begins with the standard deconstructionist diatribe that “all knowledge is historically situated and is influenced by social power and politics” and proceeds to describe a curriculum aimed at combatting what the authors claim is White Supremacy in Chemistry. The use the standard tropes of “Critical Race Theory” and “intersectional feminism” as the basic framework for a course in which they propose to help students misunderstand what Chemistry is all about.
Perhaps the most charitable thing that can be said about this nonsense was said by Coyne: “This is without doubt the most annoying, misguided, and misplaced paper on science education I’ve read in the last five years.”
Calculus as Racism in the World of Mathematics.
Coyne uttered his words above before viewing the abstracts to two papers presented at the largest Mathematical Congress in the world, the “Joint Mathematical Meetings (JMM)” held in early January this year in Boston.
When several correspondents of mine first communicated to me the title for one of the talks, we all bet on whether it was real, or a fantasy title created at some satirical journal like The Onion.
Here it is: “Undergraduate Mathematics Education as a White, Cisheteropatriarchal Space and Opportunities for Structural Disruption to Advance Queer of Color Justice”. Try and spend some time parsing the title. Eventually one can recognize it as English, but that only amplifies how truly ridiculous it is.
I have written before, in the context of an ill advised effort in the California State Math Curriculum to remove examples of ‘white supremacy’—such as seeking the correct answers in class—mathematics is the one area one would expect would not get polluted by political ideology. What can be purer and more remote from human cultural foibles than mathematics?
But alas, as the California example demonstrated, this is not the case. Thankfully, at least in this instance, the author of the above mentioned paper isn’t actually a mathematician, or at least isn’t associated with a mathematics department. Instead he teaches at the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt, which hit home personally to me because my daughter did her graduate work there. I have no other direct experience with that particular school, but based on my own experience and those of several colleagues with other schools of education, shoddy and facile scholarship is unfortunately not uncommon in their programs.
Nevertheless, even with that low bar, this takes the cake. It argues “how undergraduate mathematics education operates as a white, cisheteropatriarchal space that limits learning opportunities affirming of queer of color identities and experiences”. It further claims how the mathematics experiences of ‘queer and trans students of color’, you guessed it, “reflect forms of intersectionality, or instances of oppression and resistance at intersecting systems of white supremacy”.
Reading the abstracts to these papers, with their constant references to postmodernist identity-based notions like “intersectionality” and the constant refrain of “white supremacy” as the source of all problems reminds me of that online “Wisdom of Chopra” Deepak Chopra quote generator, which randomly strung together the same key words that Chopra often used to produce quotes that were generally indistinguishable from the real quotes.
All of this would be simply a bit sad except for two things. First, this lecture was an invited lecture at this major mathematics conference, with the speaker given a full hour in a ballroom to present it. Second, this was not the only lecture given by this educator at the meeting.
Another talk was given, entitled Logics and Mechanisms of Instruction that Reinforce Undergraduate Calculus as a Racialized and Gendered Experience for Historically Marginalized Populations in STEM. This second talk appeared in a session entitled NSF Session on Outcomes and Innovations from NSF Undergraduate Education Programs in the Mathematical Sciences, organized by five members of the National Science Foundation Division of Undergraduate Education.
That one of the US government’s major science agencies would promote this kind of nonsense is itself worrying, but it also invites the question of whether and how much publicly funded taxpayer dollars might be going into supporting this ideological incursion into the teaching of mathematics.
Additional Note: Just as I was about to publish this piece, I learned from a tweet by Jonathan Kay that the ideological attack on mathematics now extends north of the border into Ontario. At the Ontario Assoc. of Mathematics Educators 2023 meeting, a keynote speaker argued that “mathematics teachers need to be prepared with much more than just content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, or knowledge of diverse students if they are going to be successful. They need political knowledge.” and further argued, building on apparent Indigenous principles in favor of “a new form of mathematics where humans are no longer centered. This form of mathematics is referred to as living mathematx.” Another speaker was the Coordinator of Secondary Mathematics for the Toronto District School Board, where he worked to de-stream mathematics classes in order to meet the needs of students with “special educational identifications”. This distorted focus on Identity was based on his stated belief that “anti-racist, anti-oppressive and inclusive approach to mathematics education is needed to fulfill the promise of a critically numerate citizenry.”
I find it hard to express my bewilderment, and sadness for the students being taught in programs influenced by individuals whose pedagogical research is motivated by the view that mathematics education is systemically racist and oppressive.