Friday, April 09, 2021

The Pleasant Surprise of the Biden Administration

Joe Biden has set out a muscular, progressive agenda.

This has come as a surprise to some people, particularly those on the leftier edge of the party, who thought Biden would simply be an extension of Third Way Clintonism and were despondent over what they assumed was a guarantee of four years of anemic faux-progress.

But what's most surprising to me* is that we're actually seeing some of these leftier folks acknowledge the pleasant surprise. More and more, they're not dismissing what Biden's doing, they're not pooh-poohing it with "both parties are the same." They're admitting that Biden has been far better than they anticipated.

We saw this shift first, I think, when it came to the COVID stimulus bill. A couple of people certainly lapsed into reflexive Eeyore-ing, complaining that the $1.9 trillion bill wasn't bold enough or expansive enough or was worthless without the minimum wage increase. But most people, including those on the left, recognized that it was in fact a B.F.D.. It probably helped that Biden did not let the GOP tie him knots with endless delay disguised as "negotiating". Biden made it clear that he learned the lesson of the Obama years on that front: if the GOP wants to get onboard with a popular bill, lovely, but he's not going to get himself mired in a political bog for months in a futile effort to make Susan Collins vote for an inferior bill.

The early days of the Biden administration are a vindication for the persons who saw him, not as a "moderate" or a "progressive" figure, but as a party figure. Joe Biden has historically aligned himself with the middle of the Democratic Party. As the Democratic Party has shifted left, Biden has shifted left too. And that, we should say, is to the credit of folks like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who have done great work in pushing the conversation left in the context of being Democrats (as opposed to in the context of smirking about how Democrats are worthless).

The team is coming together. It doesn't mean everything will be perfect -- it never is -- but it is coming together, and it's getting stuff done.

* My version of being surprised by Biden adopting a progressive agenda was definitely Terry McAuliffe's tenure as governor of Virginia, where he was just way better than I think anyone could have anticipated ex ante.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021


Last we encountered the "Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies" (ACES), they were pushing fabricated evidence and wild screeds against "critical race theory" in a failed attempt to derail the California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum after it was reformed in accord with tremendous efforts by a range of California Jewish (and non-Jewish) organizations.

Now they're back in action, and this time their target is California's new draft Mathematical Framework. What horrors are contained inside? Let's look!

The first draft of the California Mathematics Framework is out for review, and it includes as a resource "A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction," a guide that labels teaching practices like "addressing mistakes" and  "focus on the right answer" as "white supremacy culture."

This is critical race theory.

This is discrimination. 

(Is this "critical race theory"? Nope, not going to get sucked into that).

Unfortunately, as was the case in the ESMC debacle, we are given only the thinnest possible citations to the primary sources for the alleged offending content. The link to the CMF draft goes to a website offering a thirteen chapter document, all in separate files, comprised of hundreds of page, with no indication of where in the morass the "Pathway" document is included. The link to the Pathway itself, for its part, goes to a site that contains five separate documents, again totaling hundreds of pages, with nary a clue as to where this language about "addressing mistakes" might be found. All of this, I suppose, is left as an exercise for the reader.

Well, I may not be a math expert, but I have gotten familiar enough with the strategies of ACES and its friends to know better than to accept what they say on faith. So I went in search of this resource and this language, to see if it is as scary and offensive as they say.

I want to begin with some good news: unlike the Ethnic Studies case, ACES and its allies do not appear to have completely fabricated the inclusion of the putatively offensive material. Congratulations, ACES! This is a big step forward for you as an organization, and you should give yourself a hearty pat on the back.

Alas, if we ask for more than "not fabricated" and stretch all the way out to "not abjectly misleading", things get dimmer.

Start with the CMF draft. From what I can tell, the section they refer to (where the Pathway document is "included as a resource") is on page 44 of chapter two (lines 1010-13). Here, in its totality, is what's included:

Other resources for teaching mathematics with a social justice perspective include... The five strides of Equitable

That's it (The website "" is titled "A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction"). It is mentioned, unadorned, in the "other resources" conclusion -- and as far as I can tell, nowhere else. Wowzers. I can feel the racial divisiveness cracking up from here.

One thing I'll observe on this is that often times one hears critics of "critical race theory" (or whatever random buzzword they're using today to connote "scary left-wing idea with a vaguely identity-politics kick") say that their problem isn't that the idea is included, but only that it's indoctrinated -- it's not one perspective of many, it's the only perspective on offer. This protestation was always rather thin -- the many many bills banning "critical race theory" are decidedly not about ensuring viewpoint diversity -- and one sees just how hollow it is here. The raw, unadorned inclusion of the Equitable Math resource -- as part of a broader whole, not even quoted from directly -- is too much for these people to tolerate. This is not about ideological heterodoxy. This is about censoring ideas, full stop.

But maybe Equitable Math is such an awful or inane document that it would be wrong to include it, even as one resource among many. The way it's described, after all, makes it sound like Equitable Math is a group of hippies saying "2+2 = 4 is the white man's answer, man! Fight the power!" Is that what's happening? Is this a fever dream of post-modernism where nothing is true and everything is permitted?

Once again, I had to dig for myself to figure out where this content was so I could see it in context. The answer appears to be the first document on the site, titled "Dismantling Racism in Mathematics", on pages 65-68. Do they deny that there are such things as "right" answers in math? No: "Of course, most math problems have correct answers," but there are math problems (particularly word problems, but also data analysis) that can be interpreted in different ways that yield different "right" conclusions, and students and teachers should be attentive to that possibility. Do they say one should never "address mistakes"? No again, but mistakes should not simply be called out flatly but rather used as "opportunities for learning" with an emphasis on building on what the student does understand to lead them to recognize what they misapprehend.

I don't teach math, obviously, but there are many occasions where I'll say "such-and-such is the doctrinally correct answer -- but if we look at the problem from this other vantage, doesn't this other position become more plausible?" So when the Equitable Math site suggests, as an alternative to obsessive focus on the one correct answer, classroom activities like " Using a set of data, analyze it in multiple ways to draw different conclusions" -- well, that doesn't seem weird to me. Certainly, as someone who is also trained as a social scientist, I can say confidently that it's quite valuable to anyone who has seen how the same dataset can be deployed by different people with different priors to support different agendas.

Even more than that, the suggestions around "addressing mistakes" resonate with how I try to teach in my classrooms. Sometimes my students say something wrong. When they do so, for the most part I don't say "bzzzt" and move on; instead I try to guide them to the correct answer by having them unpack their own thinking. There's a lot of "I see what you mean by [X], but suppose ..." and ask questions which hone in on the problems or misunderstandings latent in what they're saying. And eventually they get there, hopefully without feeling like they've just been put inside an Iron Maiden for daring speak up. 

Admittedly, I've never thought of what I'm doing as "dismantling White supremacy" -- I just viewed it as good pedagogy. But then again, that's kind of what I've always thought when asked about such subjects -- we act as if there's this deep magic to fostering equity and inclusion in the classroom, when really it's employing the basic strategies of being a good teacher, one of which is declining to engage in a measuring contest where you prove you know more than the student does. Obviously I know more than the student does. I don't need to prove anything. So if they say something wrong, I do not gleefully pounce on them for it, I do my best to build on what they do know to get them to a position of right. Is that so outrageous?

Finally, ACES in its tweet identifies one other area of crazy-lefty-craziness in this resource: "the incorporation of 'Ethnomathematics'". What does that mean? They don't say, correctly surmising that fevered imaginations will produce something far worse than anything they might quote. So I'll do the quoting for them (this comes from page 8):

Center Ethnomathematics: 

• Recognize the ways that communities of color engage in mathematics and problem solving in their everyday lives. 

• Teach that mathematics can help solve problems affecting students’ communities. Model the use of math as a solution to their immediate problems, needs, or desires. 

• Identify and challenge the ways that math is used to uphold capitalist, imperialist, and racist views. 

• Teach the value of math as both an abstract concept and as a useful everyday tool. 

• Expose students to examples of people who have used math as resistance. Provide learning opportunities that use math as resistance.

I know, I know -- we're all going to pitch a fit about challenging "capitalist views". But apart from that, this seems ... very normal? We all know, to the point of cliche, that a barrier to getting kids interested in math is that they fail to see how it's useful to them or "in the real world". So they advise that math be taught in a way that resonates with real world experience. And likewise, sometimes, for some people "in the real world", math can feel like an enemy (think "am I just a statistic to you?"). So figure out ways to name that and challenge that. For the most part, "ethnomathematics" just reads as a particular social justice gloss on "being a good teacher", as applied to teaching in diverse communities.

Now perhaps one disagrees with these concepts as pedagogical best practice. I'm not a math teacher, I'm not going to claim direct experience here. But that goes back to the intensity of the backlash -- that these ideas need to be banned, that they are outright dangerous and unacceptable and neo-racism. Can that be right? Surely, these ideas are not so outlandish that we should pitch a fit about their being (deep breath) single elements of an 80 page document which is itself part of a five part series being incorporated as a single "see also" bullet point in the second chapter of a thirteen chapter model state framework. Seriously? That's where we're landing? That's what's going to drive us into a valley of racial division and despair?

It's wild. The people engaged in this obsessive crusade to make Everest size mountains over backyard anthills are nothing short of wild.

Big Media David: On the JDA and Not Calling Things Antisemitic

I have a new column in Haaretz on the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism and, in particular, on the need for its backers to actually use it call things antisemitic (not just use it to call things not antisemitic). It is in many ways an expansion on my last post, but for a more popular audience.

I want to be clear though that I don't view the JDA as an enemy. My fondest hope for this column is that it convinces a large cluster of JDA signatories to band together and send a statement to Bristol University of the form: "FYI? David Miller is exactly who we mean when we talk about antisemitism operating under the guise of 'criticism of Israel'." I think that would be a very helpful intervention, and perfectly aligned with the JDA's text. But the thing is, they have to do it -- they can't just say it could be done consistent with the JDA.