Science (and Math!) for the People

By Emily T.H. Redman, Assistant Professor, Department of History

This past weekend I had the pleasure of seeing a year-long project come to fruition: the Science for the People (SftP) conference here at UMass Amherst. The conference, aimed to bring together participants from the 1970s radical activism group — alongside academic historians, scientists, and young scholars — explored the early origins of SftP and its lasting legacy, with a healthy dose of looking toward future reform, advocacy, and activism. I was, by the start of the conference, quite eager to see how it would unfold, which speakers would make an impression, and the overall zeitgeist of the event.

As a historian of science, I am interested in the ways in which science interacts with the larger culture. Science, of course, is inextricably part of that culture, but one that shares an interesting position — many find it inaccessible, imagine it to exist within impenetrable ivory towers (or worse, lock-and-keyed federal laboratories), and be driven by moneyed or powered interests that remain concealed. Science represents a stark duality of both fear and promise. Just as we look toward science and technology to solve our problems — ranging from cancer cures to prosthetic limbs to cleaning our oceans to just about everything — we also have a long history of deeply mistrusting science. At best, science is the pinnacle of human achievement; at worst it’s our Frankenstein, set into motion by our collective hubris, sure to rear its monstrous head and wreak havoc on any comfortable intimacy we might have had with scientific inquiry and practice.

While admitting to possible professional bias, that precarious relationship we as a culture have with science-as-a-culture is a breathtakingly fascinating one.

This weekend I found myself in like company, with over 150 participants joining here at UMass to discuss the left-wing organization that coalesced to take on a wide array of social activism, all centered on ending the potential oppression brought on by the misuse (or abuse) of science. Frankenstein was not allowed admission.

So how can we define the zeitgeist of the event? Of course, it was multifaceted, yet an energy of revived passions underscored the weekend’s discussions. Old friends reunited, historians offered careful analysis, and fresh faces leaned in to learn more about the efforts of the past to structure/monitor/advise our interactions with science. These discussions, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not rest in the nostalgic, but instead persistently turned to the question of what to do today as we wrestle with our relationship with science, and who, in fact, should be leading the efforts of advocacy and reform.

It was during these forward-looking discussions in particular that I felt a sense of being transported to within the manila walls of my archival research.

Though my academic interests wind with what might be described as kudzu-like avidity through the modern history of science, my primary area of research is in twentieth-century K-12 mathematics education reform in the United States. Though math made an occasional appearance on the conference program, for the most part science (rightfully) remained the focus. And although the idea of “reform” recurred, its application to classroom curriculum was infrequent. Yet I couldn’t help but think about some of the parallels between the questions and discussions that arise in my research, and those that emerged during the weekend’s conversations.

This realization didn’t come gradually, but rather directly following a brief conversation with a conference attendee before a session. Upon asking me what I worked on, I quipped that many might consider my work neither history nor science, as I work on 1950-2000 (so, barely history) mathematics. He replied, “Well, that’s ok for historians of science to study that, because scientists find math useful.”

Against the backdrop of frustrated screams from the manila-folder-bound characters with whom I’ve cultivated one-sided relationships, I smiled. Math! — they’d cry — is so much more than “just” a tool for science, but an intellectual pursuit of its own.

But the man with whom I spoke wasn’t wrong, either. Scientists do find math useful. (And so should everyone, but that’s for another day’s comment.) And many people, in fact, do see the utility of mathematics to rest in application in science, technology, and engineering, and this conception bleeds into policy of practice of precollege curriculum reform. But the relationship is a complicated one, with math education representing different goals and meanings to different interested parties.

One of the aims of my research is to put the history of mathematics education reform activities into the larger context of science-and-math-education-reform. Historically, we see decades of tension between competing views of the aims of precollege math instruction, and these tensions are exacerbated by complicated issues of constitutionality, nationalism, and the weight behind the federal coffers. Math, perhaps, might be representative of the pinnacle of human achievement. But when placed into the larger culture, when packaged for the layperson (in this case, innocently aged 6-18), the spider web of politics renders math a potential Frankenstein, with buzzwords like quantified assessment threatening the intellectual, militaristic, economic, and technological security of the next generation.

Yes, it’s dramatized. But I love the rhetoric, and strive to detach flowery imagery from the strident passions that help create it. The underlying fervor to structure/monitor/advise our relationship with the precollege math curriculum is wholly real, and throughout the twentieth century there emerges a clear pattern of discussion that (perhaps unsurprisingly) does not rest in the nostalgic, but instead persistently turn to the question of what to do today as we wrestle with the questions of mathematical skill, assessment, and math’s role in our society, and who should be leading the efforts of advocacy and reform.

While weaving, kudzu-like, through wide-ranging panel discussions, I was struck by the persistence and applicability of the questions that grounded the weekend’s discussions. These are the fundamental questions we ask as a culture about the ways we interact with expertise and knowledge, of power and powerlessness, of agency and economy that stretch beyond nuclear power and Big Pharma, extending into science more broadly defined — and, yes, even the precollege math classroom. This conference was far more than a nostalgic reunion, or simply a tutorial for future activists (though that aspect too must be celebrated) but instead it was a moment of time where we looked historically at our complicated relationship with science as both an exercise in itself and as a potential tool to guide our ever-ongoing relationships into the future. As a historian, I tend to solely look toward the past; this weekend, however, I had the opportunity to be present amidst the discussions I often only find myself privy to between manila flaps. Though I might be biased, it was breathtakingly fascinating.

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