Blogs > Cliopatria > The New Math

Oct 17, 2004 8:44 pm

The New Math

At Brooklyn, we’re in the process of replacing the college’s Core curriculum (a combination of required courses in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, along with one interdisciplinary non-Western course) with a new Core oriented around an “enhanced role for global studies.”

To my knowledge, no universities grant a Ph.D. in “global studies.” Several of the 20 or so institutions that have established “global studies” majors—alarmingly—have allowed this “discipline” to subsume history departments. (An example is Cal. St.-Monterey Bay.) For a sense of the “literature” of the “discipline” of “global studies,” take a look at the sorts of papers offered at this year’s Global Studies Association conference:

---The 2004 Elections: War, Terrorism and the Need for Regime Change

---"We Don't Torture People in America": Coercive Interrogation in the Global Village

---War, Imperialism and Resistance From Below

---Resistance to Public Higher Education in Trade Agreements

---Lessons From Seattle, Resistance to Globalization, the Media and the State's Response

At least the “discipline” doesn’t hide its political and presentist orientation.

Brooklyn’s “global studies” initiative is based on a resolution that implemented the college’s “Diversity Plan”, whose prime curricular demand is “restructuring of science, mathematics, and other courses to broaden the focus and to integrate the constructs of class, race, gender and gender orientation, and diverse cultural perspectives across the curriculum and throughout the academic life of the college.”

For science courses, the preferred approach seems to be offerings in science and morality (i.e., the immorality of the atomic bomb) and environmental science—the latter a perfectly legitimate field, but one that can be, for those so inclined, easily bastardized into an anti-corporate screed. Brooklyn’s provost, for instance, has written that, as “teaching is a political act,” colleges should structure their curricula to persuade students to support “empathetic” policies on such science-related public policy issues as the depletion of the ozone layer, not recognizing, of course, that once the college starts designing courses around telling students what political positions to take, politicians who are on the other side might decide to stop funding the college.

For math, though, it was harder for me to see exactly what the preferred new approach might be. A couple of examples, however, have emerged. At Portland (Oregon) State, a so-called “capstone” course, of which all PSU students must take one, is entitled “Family Mathematics” (whose instructor, ironically, isn’t even listed as among the Math Department’s faculty). Even more on point is a course at Northeastern designed for public school teachers, Teaching"Mathematics for Social Justice," which seeks to allow students to “conceptualize a socially just mathematics curriculum and instruction.” Among the course topics: “student empowerment,” “mathematics for social action,” and “ethnomathematics.” One plus one equals the white corporate elite?

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Charles V. Mutschler - 10/19/2004

I've recommended this well reasoned book to my fellow historians on several occasions. Check out Levitt's poetic treatment of Derrida on the _Chronicle of Higher Education_ "Colloquy" site.


Robert KC Johnson - 10/19/2004

Patterns in the institutions that have established GS departments vary. At some places, such as CSUMB, they have displaced History Departments entirely. At others, such as St Lawrence, they compete against History for lines. In either case, I'm at a loss to see why this particular "discipline," as it's been defined, it needed for the academy at present.

Richard Henry Morgan - 10/18/2004

The looney math stuff in KC's post was predictable to any who had read Gross and Levitt's 'Higher Superstition'. I recommend it highly, though it probably won't help you very far along the way toward a "socially just mathematics".

Derek Charles Catsam - 10/18/2004

I've long said this about certain "Studies" departments: I have serious qualms with any epartment in which my conservative frineds could not excel without burying their politics. Even in most history departments there is enough distance where a student could write or speak in support of Coolidge. I cannot imagine one of these global studies departments allowing a student to write about globalization as a positive force without trying to convert them to the side of righteousness. This is hugely problematic. History has been politicized, but is not inherently political. These "disciplines" are inherently politicized. This is not good for students; it is not good for scholarship. For what, then, is it good?


Oscar Chamberlain - 10/18/2004

I had not known that Global Studies was squeezing out history in some places. That makes much of the "edge" I've been hearing in these and other comments more understandable.

Global Studes does not have a presence where I am, so these questions are sincere, not rhetorical.

Does the loss of history positions mean that Global Studies proponents are arguing that they have a historical perspective when most of their writings bely that, and by that argument taking positions from history?

Or are the proponents creating a competetitor in the limited Arts and Sciences universe along the lines of political science or sociology?

Jonathan Dresner - 10/18/2004

Looking over the papers at the conference KC referenced, I would agree that most of that scholarship falls, insofar as it falls into an academic discourse, into the realm of applied economics and political science. Most of it is quite ahistorical in approach, except for a rough "'twere always thus" sort of marxist historiography.

For what it's worth, the keynote speaker, Michael Albert, is a brilliant economist and visionary, but, and I've been reading him for years, not a historian in any meaningful sense of the word.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/18/2004

Oscar, I'd add to what KC has said that I should think most historians would have a problem with "global studies" insofar as it allows no substantial treatment of time, change over time, or historical depth.

Robert KC Johnson - 10/18/2004

I have a couple of serious objections to global studies.

First, it's alarming that, at some institutions, this field has replaced History altogether.

Second, I don't see anything "cross-disciplinary" or "interdisciplinary" about the field: it is, if anything, "anti-disciplinary." If anti-WTO activists want to analyze the events in Seattle to provide lessons for future anti-internationalist activists, they're welcome to do so. But the fact that academics are the authors of these studies doesn't make the result "academic." (How any college in the country could choose to orient its general education curriculum around this field is another matter.)

On the general issue of whether the academy needs a field devoted to the cross-discipline study of recent events, I'm dubious. Departments public policy, of political science, and sociology all handle these issues quite well. Apart from a fierce hostility to international capitalism and to the Republican Party (sentiments well represented in the latter two disciplines, if in less extreme form), I don't see how the "global studies" approach seems likely to ask academic questions in a new way.

Oscar Chamberlain - 10/18/2004

Has there any field of history that did not begin with a "political" orientation. The progressives of the late 19th and early 20th century certainly had axes to grind and did so in both political science and in history. Just about every new approach to understanding society, whether sociological, anthropological,or historical began with a presentist inspiration.

Some fine work has come out of Mexican/Latino,Hispanic studies. The activism of some of the practitioners makes me cautious, but much of their work is essential to understanding immigration of the past century.

Even "traditional" history with its focus on politics and wars often has an eye to the present. I realize she was technically not a professional, But Wedgewood's intro to her history of the 30 years war (published in 1938) reminds us of how past and present can intertwine in subtle and overt ways even in established fields.

My comments do not, of themselves, defend the papers you mention. But, with the likely exeption of the "regime change" one, all the topics seem defenisible. (The execution is another issue.)

Still, I would ask, do you abject on principle to such a field, which as best as I can gather is a cross-discpline study of recent events. Or is it simply their approach?

History News Network