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Social and Political Dimensions of Mathematics Education: Current Thinking

Murad Jurdak et al.
Springer Open
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
ICME-13 Topical Surveys
[Reviewed by
Kira Hamman
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This volume, authored by the ICME-13 Topic Study Group of the same name, “represents the mainstreaming of this area of work as a scholarly and ongoing significant activity of the broader mathematics education community.” On balance, that is a good thing. Certainly awareness of and concern about the political and social justice implications of mathematics education, particularly at the K–12 level, has been on the increase for a good thirty years.

Since the advent of the Algebra Project in the 1980s, mathematics education researchers and, to a lesser extent, mathematicians have sought to understand the social and political forces that function as de facto gatekeepers to our profession. It is a search that has increased in urgency in the intervening decades, inspiring not only the current survey but also paper sessions on mathematics and social justice at national meetings, special issues of journals devoted to the topic, and, perhaps most movingly, Francis Su’s viral address at the 2017 Joint Mathematics Meetings.

We can agree, then, that there is serious work to be done here, and indeed much is being done. The book breaks this work into five “critical areas” and briefly summarizes the current state of each. It is explicitly not a comprehensive literature survey: the authors have chosen “only to go back in history as far as [is] needed to contextualize the current issues.” This choice gives the work a welcome freshness, although it may also make it challenging for readers who are not already familiar with the background material.

Of the five critical areas identified by the authors, three deal at least substantially with work that most mathematicians will find familiar. The first, Equitable Access and Participation in Quality Mathematics, discusses the “illusive, but sublime, goal of equitable access and participation.” Leaving aside the question of whether equitable access and participation are truly illusive or are merely elusive, this is certainly familiar and important territory. The survey breaks ground here by identifying four distinct perspectives that researchers take in looking at this issue. Although some of these perspectives veer worryingly toward the grandiose, citing not only Foucault but also Marx and Engels, the framework itself is thought provoking.

We will pass over sections two and three for the moment. Section four, Activism and Material Conditions of Inequality, deals with the intersection of what the authors call “activism” with the theory, research, and practice of mathematics education. Research documented here explores the “myriad of ways in which mathematics education functions in society to include or exclude.” The familiar work in this section deals with topics such as the No Child Left Behind Act, TIMSS data, and the so-called “achievement gap,” as well as with the more recent critiques of that work by Gutstein and others. Much of this research is only nominally about mathematics, but its relevance to the pursuit of the goals mentioned in the first section cannot be denied.

As an aside, the term “activism” does not seem to have its usual meaning here, but instead appears to connote action in the sense of agency. The authors quote Skovomose at length: “at the core of our work in exposing mathematics education as an inherently political enterprise is the dialectic between reflection and action... We use the term ‘critical agency’...” Quite apart from the invocation of dialectics, this raises red flags for this mathematician-reader. Is not all education inherently political? In what sense is mathematics being “exposed” here? But we must be careful not to condemn the messenger.

Section five, Economic Factors Behind Mathematics Achievement, is largely self-explanatory and is probably the most straightforward section of the book. Naturally Marx comes up again, as most of this section covers research that seeks to understand “the influence of national and global economic structures” on mathematics education. Unsurprisingly, the reviewer found this to be the most satisfyingly grounded section.

Let us return, then, to sections two and three. Respectively titled Distributions of Power and Cultural Regimes of Truth and Mathematics Identity, Subjectivity and Embodied Dis/ability, these sections appear almost Sokalesque in their appropriation of the language of critical theory to discuss what is, after all, a fairly straightforward (if poorly executed) endeavor. Research covered in these sections entreats the reader to, among other things, “understand mathematics itself as a regime of truth” and “be wary of this binary between structure and agency.” One work cited proclaims that “in mathematics education, the concept of ‘understanding’ is used in either a romantic or a neo-liberal, functional interpretation.” Needless to say, this privileges the bourgeoisie. When Lacan came up this reviewer moved on, having not yet forgiven him for his brutally pompous and astonishingly misguided assault on group theory.

Mathematics education is a human endeavor, and as such it is inherently biased and political. It does, in fact, favor students from bourgeois backgrounds; it does function as a gatekeeper that disproportionately excludes women, people of color, poor people, and yes, people with disabilities. This is unacceptable, and we in the mathematics community should be delighted and relieved that there is work being done to understand and correct those problems. We should be grateful to the researchers whose work helps us move toward equitable access and participation, be it illusive or elusive. It is troubling, then, to see that important work opened up to charges of absurdity by association with ill-advised attacks on mathematics itself. Mathematics is not “a negotiable field of social practices,” although certainly mathematics education is. The current volume is therefore recommended both as a compelling synopsis of current thought on this topic, and as a cautionary tale about the perils of overstepping disciplinary bounds.

Kira Hamman teaches mathematics and fights injustice from the Mont Alto campus of Penn State. You can reach her at

See the table of contents in the publisher's webpage.