Rico Gutstein is a mathematics education professor in the Curriculum and Instruction department of the University of Illinois at Chicago. He writes and teaches about critical and Freirean pedagogies, and mathematics and urban education policy. Rico has taught middle and high school mathematics in Chicago public schools and is the author of Reading and Writing the World with Mathematics: Toward a Pedagogy for Social Justice (2006). He also co-edited Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers (2nd Ed) (2013). Rico is a founding member of Teachers for Social Justice (Chicago) and is active in the movement against education privatization.
My practice and research focus on teaching and learning mathematics for social justice (“critical mathematics”). For me, this means to prepare students to learn and use mathematics to study social reality and fight injustice, so that they can change what they believe is wrong. Because of that, I always consider how these processes within schools and classrooms interconnect with the broader sociopolitical contexts in which we live. This stance leads me to write this blog post by drawing on Fanon and Freire, who always studied the dialectical relationships between phenomena. And, I write it from the perspective of an activist scholar, living and working in Chicago, an often-violent city whose culturally and spiritually strong and resilient working-class communities of color are under the devastating attack of neoliberal capitalism—austerity, school and health clinic closings, massive displacement and gentrification, environmental racism, and much more. If my views seem extreme or constrained it may be because the stark polarization and ever-increasing inequalities are front and center for so many of the city’s residents—injustice is everywhere in the air here.
Fanon, a revolutionary and psychiatrist, analyzed the terrible violence of colonialism inflicted upon Algerians during their war of independence from France (and the psychic damage to the French perpetrators as well). He wrote that ground-down, oppressed people sometimes take out their righteous anger on wrong targets and wreak havoc on themselves and their community. This is beyond tragic.
Freire (1998) wrote in a similar vein (and was much influenced by Fanon, 1963). Acknowledging this pain and fury, he advocated that radical teachers need to build on people’s resistance and begin to undo the internalized damage from oppression while making the world better. He wrote:
One of the basic questions that we need to look at is how to convert merely rebellious attitudes into revolutionary ones in the radical transformation of society. Merely rebellious attitudes or actions are insufficient, though they are an indispensable response to legitimate anger. It is necessary to go beyond rebellious attitudes to a more radically critical and revolutionary position… (p. 74)
My friend and colleague, K. Wayne Yang (2006), has a related understanding and specifically addressed one way teachers can do this. He said, “My students don’t resist me because we are too busy resisting the system together.” That line bears rereading. When we consider our positionalities and the relationships we build with those with whom we work, we can keep the above views in mind.
These perspectives are also salient when asking: Why learn math, for what purpose? (I’m not trying to pigeonhole math, because I believe that this argument holds for education, period. But I’m a math educator, so I’ll talk about what I know best.) Through Fanon’s lens, if people knew better the roots of their wounds, there might be less self-destruction. Following Freire and Yang, when teachers work with students and stand unequivocally with them against the conditions they feel oppress them, this righteous rage can be transformed into serious study to understand and change the world. So you analyze your reality to better understand the crises we’re in, and because you have real questions and real pain demanding answers. Studying the conditions of our lives—with or without math—is to develop a critical analysis, a deeper sense of self and history and culture and community, as a necessary part of remaking the world.
And you use whatever you can. Math is just one way. When in prison, Malcolm X learned to use the English language as a vehicle towards his liberation. It was a different use of English for him, already a master in language. For youth in school, mathematics can play that role, but won’t necessarily. That’s where radical teachers come in. When teachers teach so that students learn and use math to investigate things of meaning to them—their world—then the mathematics itself has meaning because it helps them begin to answer their own questions.
Least people read me as only framing math instrumentally, I believe that mathematics is profoundly human, a part of our collective cultural production and knowledge creation. All peoples created mathematics, always, just like they created language—without exception. Bees fly, people do mathematics. We experience life in many ways, including by locating, comparing, noticing patterns, seeing shapes, using time, measuring, predicting, designing, estimating, counting, experimenting, playing—all characteristic of mathematics or with mathematical characteristics. (It is sad that many people had their innate mathematical selves bastardized by school so that they hate, fear, or are ambivalent toward something they loved when they were little and that was very much part of them—then.)
So why learn (math)? To understand and change the world, because much needs to change. And I am talking deep, conceptually based mathematics that also affords students access to further education and economic well-being for themselves, families, and communities. Several years ago, I taught a “math for social justice class” in an untracked, neighborhood (i.e., non-selective-enrollment) Chicago public high school. Students learned math to answer their real questions—about criminalization, HIV-AIDS, sexism, racism, gentrification, deportation, and more. They did end-of-year presentations about their studies in their communities, one Black (North Lawndale), one Latina/o (South Lawndale, aka Little Village). They titled their sessions, “Our People, Our Issues—Math as Our Weapon.” When teachers frame and teach mathematics as a weapon in the struggle for social justice, youth in places like Lawndale (and elsewhere?) may come to appropriate it, just like Malcolm X mastered English. Mathematics makes sense to them, and they want to learn it not only for their futures but even more, because they begin to see themselves as subjects in history capable of “reading and writing the world” (Freire).
I know this is difficult work, to develop and teach curriculum based on students’ lives so that they understand and begin to change reality, especially given horrific pressures of mandates (e.g., Common Core State Standards Initiative), tests, attacks on teachers and unions, and more. But it is doable. Readers of Rethinking Mathematics (Gutstein & Peterson, 2013) know that teachers and teacher educators are trying to make this road while walking. Much more can be said about this path, with all its complexities and challenges. But if we care about students learning mathematics—and why should they learn it—we can draw lessons and inspiration from those addressing these issues (in any subject) and support students in studying the conditions of their lives so that they can change the world—with and without mathematics. And while we should not think of teaching this way as a magic bullet that will by itself radically change students’ experiences in math classes, we should appreciate that it can help motivate their learning, deepen their commitments, and strengthen their perseverance—all necessary to transform reality.
Fanon, F. (1963). The wretched of the earth. (C. Frankington, Trans.). New York: Grove Press.
Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Gutstein, E., & Peterson, B. (Eds.). (2013). Rethinking mathematics: Teaching social justice by the numbers (2nd Ed.). Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, Ltd.
Yang, K. W. (2006, March 30). Transformative teaching and youth resistance. Talk given at DePaul University, Chicago, IL.