Opinion open letter

Fighting (against MIT) for math

Like many in California, I am battling my local school board and the state Board of Education to maintain high quality standards in math, to keep calculus available to high school students, and to negate the idea that right answers and showing your work in math are examples of “white supremacy.”

But MIT, who should have a major stake in the California Math Wars, is only making my job harder. 

It’s clear MIT should have an interest in this. Where California math standards go, the nation may well follow. MIT will suffer if America stops educating kids in math to a high level. We all will.

What may be less clear is MIT’s role in this. 

MIT gave in to those who couldn’t tolerate Dorian Abbot because he held different views on how to achieve a greater diversity of teaching talent. One may agree with Abbot, or not. But what’s deeply troubling is to discover that no dissent is allowed. If the debate is framed as  “equity” vs. “equality,” or how either of those might be advanced, there is no open debate. There is no marketplace of ideas.

What is true of a speaker at MIT is true of a speaker at a school board meeting. Should math curricula be designed around equity or equality? Is it okay to achieve equity by removing calculus? Should we instead focus on equality of opportunity in grades 1–8? Or should our community focus on home zoning laws that determine who can live where and what school they can go to? These are important questions, deserving of debate. Debate could educate us all. But parents at a school board meeting see what happens when one argues against the prevailing orthodoxy.

For every Dorian Abbot that MIT shuts down, not only do MIT professors have more fear of speaking out, but so do the rest of us. When elite institutions allow a political slogan, however appealing it may seem, to be a sign post that means “no debate allowed,” the message spreads to the rest of us. When the sign-post is then hung above math education, MIT is cutting off the hand that feeds it.

America, California, and MIT all need to do better on issues of fairness, equity, and equality. But we can’t solve those problems if we can't speak freely, without fear. I urge MIT to take a stand for free speech. A first step would be to officially adopt the Chicago Principles. Until MIT does, I urge MIT alumni to join me in sending their annual alumni gifts to the University of Chicago instead.

Gene McKenna ’92