Learning Math Can Cause ‘Collateral Damage’ to Society

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According to a new textbook written by a professor at the University of Exeter, learning mathematics can cause “collateral damage” to society because it “provides a training in ethics-free thought.”

“Reasoning without meanings provides a training in ethics-free thought,” Paul Ernest writes in “The Ethics of Mathematics: Is Mathematics Harmful?” — a chapter of his book The Philosophy of Mathematics Education Today.

In an abstract for the book, Ernest claims that although he does “acknowledge that mathematics is a widespread force for good,” “there is significant collateral damage caused by learning mathematics.”

According to Ernest, this “collateral damage” happens in three ways. First, he argues, the styles of thinking involved with mathematics are “detached” and “calculated” ones, which value “rules, abstraction, objectification, impersonality, unfeelingness, dispassionate reason, and analysis” — which he claims “can be damaging when applied beyond mathematics to social and human issues.”

The second problem, he explains, is that “the applications of mathematics in society can be deleterious to our humanity unless very carefully monitored and checked.”

“Money and thus mathematics is the tool for the distribution of wealth,” he writes. “It can therefore be argued that as the key underpinning conceptual tool mathematics is implicated in the global disparities in wealth.”

Finally, Ernest claims, “the personal impact of learning mathematics on learners’ thinking and life chances can be negative for a minority of less successful students, as well as potentially harmful for successful students.” Ernest continues to explain that math is often viewed as “masculine,” and that that can essentially make it difficult for women to deal with learning it.

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