Math — Who Needs It?

Communism Will Count on Everyone!

CALIFORNIA (USA) — People need math to help plan, make decisions and evaluate the production and distribution of goods and services. In communism, all of us will do that.

Every process has both qualitative and quantitative aspects. Real math studies general quantitative aspects of different kinds of things: How much? How many? How are they changing? How are they related?

How is a teacup like a doughnut? How is a cooling-off cup of tea related to global climate change? How is computer science related to planning a trip to visit comrades in several different cities? These are mathematical questions.

Most of us never learn real math in school. Instead, we memorize facts and follow procedures. We solve puzzles called “applications” that nobody ever does outside of class. Many of these involve money: they are exercises in capitalism.

Students leaving a typical math classroom are talking about how many “points” or what “grade” they got – not about mathematical ideas or problem-solving.

Math education IN capitalism is math education FOR capitalism. Most workers’ children are taught to follow rules and work for grades and points, the school equivalent of wages. They are set up for failure. They are supposed to conclude that they aren’t “smart enough” to do interesting work and don’t “deserve” as comfortable a life as others.

Even students entering technical fields mostly learn “how” without learning “why.” They’re not encouraged to think about the effects on other workers of what they do, much less how things could be done very differently.

No wonder so many of us say “I was never any good at math” or “I hate math” or “Who needs it?”

Math education IN communism will be math education FOR communism. We can’t say now exactly what that will be like. For sure no problems about money or investments! No points or grades! No “exams” as we know them! For both children and adults, learning math will be cooperative, voluntary, and connected with productive work.

“It is not an imposition on children or an artificial exercise to work with numbers, quantity, classification, dimensions, forms, measurement, transformation, orientation, conservation, and change, or speed and space,” wrote the Italian educator Loris Malaguzzi. “Because these explorations belong spontaneously to the everyday experiences of living, playing, negotiating, thinking and speaking by children.”

Malaguzzi was part of the Reggio Emilia group that established a world-famous early-childhood program in post-World War II Italy. Malaguzzi got involved when he met a group of working-class women who were digging mud for bricks to build a school for their children. Their region was a communist stronghold that had fiercely resisted Mussolini’s fascism. Reggio Emilia flowed from this communist vision and can teach us a lot about communist education.

But it’s not possible to build islands of communism inside of a capitalist society. Communist education demands communist revolution. And without it, math education – along with war, climate change, racism, and economic inequality—will continue to get worse.

US Capitalists Legislate Ignorance

Recent California laws are “transforming” community colleges to more “efficiently” prepare young workers to be wage slaves. This is part of a nationwide wave of corporate-driven reform. For example, “Pathways” programs have students take only the courses they “need” for a particular career.

California law AB 705 represents another movement. It decrees that all high school graduates are “college-ready” so none should have to take “remedial” work in English or math.

That would be fine if it were true. But working-class high schools have already been trashed by corporate-driven reform, including privatization and high-stakes testing. They pass along many students without even elementary skills. Now the California legislature (controlled by Democrats) is trying to force community colleges to do the same.

Dedicated instructors are frantically asking “What can we do?”

“The corporate class and their politicians have an interest in making the masses passive and ignorant,” a comrade teacher has been answering. “The main thing we need to do is mobilize for revolution.”

Many nod. Some are seriously interested. But that revolution has to be for communism. Only communism can end the wage system and class society.

There were no “good old days” of math education. Math is a big piece of how ruling-class education divides “mental” from “manual” labor. That’s their excuse for why workers supposedly can’t organize and run production and all other aspects of society. It’s their excuse for class society with its sexism, racism and exploitation of the masses.

Only communism can develop all children’s spontaneous explorations of numbers, measurement, transformation and the rest into conscious tools for building a collectively-run society where we will all help meet each other’s needs.

 Ada Gobetti, Italian anti-fascist partisan and member of the Reggio Emilio education collective

Front page of this issue