October 4, 2019

When do you come to realise that a movement has made a clean sweep through the culture? It isn’t the moment when the disciplines that you know succumb to it. It isn’t when the ideas that you are familiar with suffer from the contamination. Rather it is when subjects you took to be serious, solid and immune from such things end up spouting exactly the same degraded mantras as everyone else.

So in recent years those of us who cut what teeth we possess in the humanities and social sciences have grown used to the intellectual degradation of everything. We have known for more than a generation that everything is to be considered “relative”. We have been instructed by the “studies” movement that the identity traits of an author and reader matter more than whether or not they have anything much to say.

We’ve learned that every and all text should be “interrogated”; that we should try to work out the relative “power” dynamics at play (who might be oppressed and who might be an oppressor). And we have noticed that there is nothing that the educational establishment does not wish to “deconstruct”. Apart from itself, obviously.

Yet throughout all this we know-nothing humanities types have tended to presume that other disciplines are immune to such convulsions. Surely the pure realm of the sciences and other real disciplines could not succumb to the tyranny of identity politics? In particular they surely could not fall into the zero-sum interpretation of existence through the game of understanding and stratifying “privilege”?

Surely, we naively assumed, engineers would not find any utility in constructing a bridge along relativist lines. Scientists would find no purpose in “problematising” their studies, and mathematicians wouldn’t be concerned whether their equation answers enforce some “hierarchy”.

So those of us still optimistic about the water-tightness of serious studies look with especial dismay on the developing contamination of the social sciences seeping into the sciences. And our optimism will be somewhat dented by the recent news that maths in Seattle is going the way of everything else.

As readers of my latest book will know, I regard the whole Northwestern United States to be among the global hubs of our present derangements. Oregon is the source of the “food wars” in which people are only meant to cook or consume the produce cooked and consumed by their racial antecedents, and its largest city Portland is the hub of a fascist movement that presents itself as only having to do fascistic things because it is trying to defeat an otherwise non-present fascism. So the only thing less surprising than the State of Oregon deciding to do something inconceivable is when its neighbour Washington agrees to do something equally crazed. And on this occasion Seattle has beaten even Portland in the local derangement Olympics.

This week it emerged that the city’s school board has decided even maths must be subjected to the same numbing and unthinking orthodoxy of our time. In particular that mathematics must – like everything else – be seen through the prism of racism and oppression. Thus as the Seattle Public Schools guidelines for maths education show, students in Seattle schools will be invited to consider questions such as the following: “Where does Power and Oppression show up in our math experience?” Note, incidentally, the fact that “Power” and “Oppression” get the full upper-case first letter treatment. Like The Queen or The President. A real, living, major presence – unlike “math” of course.

Other questions demonstrate an equal intellectual deficit. “How is math manipulated to allow inequality and oppression to exist?” and “How has math been used to resist and liberate people and communities of color from oppression?” Just one of the sub-questions that students will be invited to consider here is “How can we use math to measure the impact of activism?” Because, of course, what matters most in this world is engaging in impactful activism. Elsewhere students will be invited to consider the following question, “Can you suggest resolutions to oppressive mathematical practices?”

It brings to mind the experience that a doctor friend of mine had some years ago. A new layer of bureaucracy had been brought into the National Health Service and all NHS doctors were having to answer a new range of questions about a range of matters, one of which was “Have you everywhere and at all times behaved in an ethical manner?”

My friend pointed out that he would only answer the question if the questioner answered two questions in turn. The first was “Who would honestly ask such a question?” and the second was “Who would honestly answer such a question?” Eventually, after some back and forth, the questioner said “Could you just say ‘yes’, so that we can move on”. Thus, of course, inviting a lie in response to a question on ethical behaviour.

The Seattle school board’s questions have a similar dynamic at play. The cleverer students will realise that there is a “correct” answer to the questions, whether or not those answers are true – as there is to every other question of our age. They’ll work out that the answer to every question posed by the Seattle authorities will always and everywhere be the same: “more diversity”.

But the problem is not with the smarter students, who like most smart people will always find a way to navigate around the lies and dogmas of their age, but the less intelligent applicants, whose one shot at education the Seattle authorities are meant to be overseeing. A rather basic knowledge of maths would help such people and come in very handy in their lives: in ordering their finances, and working out their day-to-day interactions with others. If they do not pick up these basics at school, then it is highly unlikely that they will pick them up at some later stage, the education system offering the best chance anyone ever has to surpass their forebears.

It should, in theory, also offer them the chance to escape the ideological straitjackets of their time. How disturbing it is to learn that instead, even in a discipline like maths, students will be cocooned and imprisoned in the lies of their age rather than being given the chance to escape them.