Le mot juste

Theodore Dalrymple writes as good an epitaph for the American civil rights movement as you’re likely to find:

But to hate injustice is not necessarily to love justice…


Fundamentalist math

An article about supposed Math Wars in the National Post this morning neatly illustrates two of the deep pathologies of contemporary thought.

First, the tendency of people to only believe an idea only when it’s dressed up in fashionable “scientific” jargon. For the moment, that means neuroscience. With brain scanners. Of course it only makes sense that you derived your position on mathematical pedagogy by observing the aggregate spatial distribution of relative sugar metabolism within the brain.

Far worse however, is the tendency to think about everything in hyper-politicized terms. Witness the following paragraph:

As a scientific justification of rote learning, the study seems likely to further polarize the controversy over math teaching styles, in which arithmetical fundamentalists are squared off against the popular and progressive forces of “discovery-based” learning, in which students are encouraged to find their own ways to the right answer.

By illustrating the benefit of repetition and memory, and showing how it serves as a stepping stone to mature calculation, the research is likely to embolden the fundamentalists, who have only recently started to win back lost ground.

The “fundamentalists” vs. the “progressive” advocates of discovery!!? It makes you wonder how much the reflexive, lazy reporting of everything as a clash between ideologies actually creates the very thing it claims to report. (Not that there’s not disagreement. I’ve tried to explain physics to students who learned math from the progressive advocates of discovery. Oh, the sinister failure that goes on behind positive sounding descriptors. That’s for another time.)

And using “fundamentalist” to label people with a particular approach to teaching math? Are you insane? Like really, really, sputtering, thinking-like-a-journalist-is-starting-to-chew-holes-in-my-brain crazy? Alvin Plantinga summarizes the problems with the f-word in a theological context:

On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in the widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.

That’s bad enough, but when using it to report on math curricula, something has seriously snapped. You’re becoming like one of those tiresome people who can’t assemble even the most banal sentence without leaning heavily on that other f-word. Advice to journalists: every time you’re tempted to write ‘fundamentalist’, say what you really want to say and write ‘f*****g a*****e’ instead. First, it expresses your intended meaning more clearly. Second, if you work for a respectable publication your editor will cross it out and your writing will be better for it.