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Can Democratic Mathematics Education Survive Under Neoliberal Regime?

Title Of The Book : Critical Mathematics Education: Can Democratic Mathematics Education Survive Under Neoliberal Regime?

The Author : Bülent Avcı

Publisher : BRILL-SENSE

Publishing Year : 2018

Book Review : Antonia Darder

Our lives are lived, in actual fact, among changing, varying realities, subject to the casual play of external necessities, and modifying themselves according to specific conditions within specific limits; and yet we act and strive and sacrifice ourselves and others by reference to fixed and isolated abstractions which cannot possibly be related either to one another or to any concrete facts. In this so-called age of technicians, the only battles we know how to fight are battles against windmills.

—Simone Weil[1]

Writing in the 1930s, Simone Weil’s words presaged the growing alienation that would unfold as a consequence of advancing capitalism and its disregard for the dignity of our humanity. During the last four decades, the regime of neoliberalism has taken center stage in its political economic efforts to prevent the full democratization of society. Through a long-standing belief in the power of absolute measurement, the knowledge realm of mathematics has been, indeed, systematically privileged, as well as colonized as the handmaiden of capital, in the quest to produce a reified world view of binaries and standardizations that work to obstruct the majority of citizens from comprehending, let alone participating within, the structures of power that determine our lives.

Through the process of hegemonic schooling, citizens are individualized and depoliticized, effectively stripped of imagination and curiosity, as they are ushered into the world as technicians of the wealthy and powerful. Traditional mathematics education has been informed by a pedagogy blinded by an ever-narrowing rationality and approach transfixed by the myths of fixed and isolated abstractions. The monstrous ideology of neoliberalism, intent on absolute domination of power and wealth by a few, has declared itself victorious at the expense of our embodied and messy human existence—the same messy human existence from which genuine democratic life must emerge. In essence, the banking approach to education[2] prevalent in mathematics education is the perfect cover-up, in that it not only despises human messiness as irrational, it also blames those who are unable to penetrate the realm of mathematics for their own failure. Hence, the fundamentally unjust values of meritocracy, so endemic to the current neoliberal ethos of schooling, are reproduced, as inequalities are justified and perpetuated.

Reconceptualizing Mathematics Education

Insofar as mathematics is about reality, it is not certain, and insofar as it is certain, it is not about reality.

                                                                                                              —Albert Einstein[3]

Albert Einstein, the consummate scientist of the twentieth century, was more apt than his colleagues of the time to question the absolute nature of mathematics, calling into question the certainty of its relationship to reality. This, of course, did not mean that Einstein did not possess a deep respect for mathematics, but rather than he seemed to comprehend that mathematics, stripped of experience and human life, could not in itself inform our understanding of the world. He recognized that mathematics, like language, is a product of the human mind, expressed as symbols that are created to represent life but are not life. It is a bit like seeing oneself in the mirror. The glass reflects an image of ourselves but in no way is that image the embodied us. Hence, any desire to engage mathematics education critically must begin within the realm of lived experience—the lived experiences of the teacher and the students. Only through such an examination is it possible to not only understand mathematics in a way where power is implicated and social inequalities exposed, but also to consider how critical mathematics education itself can serve as a possible space for the teaching and living of democratic life.

With this in mind, Mathematics Education for Critical Citizenship is an excellent example of the ways that our lived experience can serve as a powerful impetus and strategy for the construction of mathematics knowledge through naming the world, both as an individual researcher and as a collective participant with students/participants, without whom we could not genuinely come to know or appreciate our practice. As such, this volume provides a glimpse into an excellent pedagogical study, where both the author’s life as a critical educator-researcher and his mathematics classroom are utilized as critical sites of inquiry. Through this interrogation, the meaning of citizenship is explored within an educational context where such questions are typically ignored, let alone given primacy.

By so doing, Bülent Avcı centers his study on a few central questions, which focus on the attainability of critical pedagogical practice within the constraints of neoliberal educational conditions, which are essentially in direct contradiction to his larger emancipatory vision of mathematics education. Here, the underlying purpose of the standardization movement’s so-called reform efforts are unveiled, as Avcı critiques the imposition of a one-size-fits-all approach that drives mathematics educational practices. At the heart of this deeply unjust and decontextualized neoliberal strategy is a conservative political drive to destabilize and undo the very meaning and practice of public education and undermine the right to education for all children. Hence, an education that was once (at least in theory) meant to encompass the liberal democratic ideal of citizenship and civic participation has been replaced by an authoritarian top-down tenet, where, by producing efficient and obedient workers, schools can function as economic engines for the nation. Accordingly, public school teachers have been converted into technicians who are expected to enact “best practices” tied to an “evidence-based” or scientific preset curriculum and time frame, indifferent to the lived histories and contemporary conditions faced by students, particularly students from working-class and racialized communities.

Avcı carefully explores the instrumentalizing restrictions imposed by neoliberal policies and their impact on the teaching of mathematics, in the hopes of articulating key dimensions related to his efforts to bring a critical mathematics education praxis to fruition, even within an educational context where the teacher must contend with the limit-situations, as Freire[4] would say, and create counterhegemonic possibilities within an arena of hegemonic schooling. Toward this end, Avcı’s reconceptualization of critical mathematics education, which emerges directly from his critical participatory engagement with students, offers an outstanding contribution to the literature in the field—a literature that has been steadily expanding over the last two decades.

Through the use of participatory nongraded activities, student-generated exams, and a critical mathematics literacy approach, students find classroom space to find their voices, create the conditions for their democratic participation, and build solidarity as they collaborate and learn together. By doing so in a pedagogically conscientious and consistent manner, teacher and students work as revolutionary partners[5] to challenge neoliberal classroom policies and practices rooted in competition, individuality, and instrumentalization, as they transform together the learning environment in the moment. This critical approach also offers students a powerful opportunity to experience embodied democratic participation in ways that not only enhance their understanding of mathematics within the classroom, but also out in their own world. Just as Avcı’s students experienced greater opportunities to learn with one another when engaged through a critical mathematics literacy approach, so too was Avcı as their teacher transformed by the teaching-learning relationship with his students, as together they entered in a critical praxis that dialectically helped to shatter the school/world divide generally conserved by hegemonic schooling. Of this he asserts, “While improving their content knowledge, the students related their learning to a larger society and developed a bottom-up response to neoliberal educational changes. The project helped the students and me to engage in a structural analysis of neoliberal educational policies and implementations. In doing do, we developed and exercised critical mathematical literacy”

In reading Mathematics Education for Critical Citizenship, what is illustrated repeatedly is that the only effective manner to counter neoliberalism’s mania with scientifically packaged curriculum and teacher accountability within the classroom is an unwavering commitment to a critical praxis. However, this requires that teachers engage critically and thoughtfully the conditions within schools, the lives of their students, and the larger social, political, and economic context that informs our lives. In this sense, a critical mathematics approach requires teachers who are prepared to counter the perverted market logic of neoliberalism, steeped in the language of school choice, high-stakes meritocracy, and student surveillance. Hence, critical mathematics as reconceived by Avcı in his study functions as a bottom-up response to the hegemonic conditions produced by the greed and indifference of neoliberal reform.

Certain important key points are made that point to the teacher’s knowledge and the sensibilities that must encompass a critical praxis. The teacher, for example, must have an understanding of class consciousness and how schools reproduce class formation through traditional forms of mathematics education and the instrumentalization and fracturing of the math curriculum. In contrast, a teacher utilizing a critical mathematics approach places dialogue at the heart of the teacher’s engagement with students. This means that the teacher does not expect students to abandon their lived experiences or who they are in the classroom, but rather sees these as sources of strength and significant foundations from which students enter into the process of critically learning mathematics, as well as their coming to understand the emancipatory potential of mathematics in the world. With all this in mind, teachers of critical mathematics, who are intent on challenging neoliberal practices in the classroom, must bring an emancipatory understanding of culture politics, economics, history, knowledge construction, ideology, critique, dialogue, and conscientization, as well as their excellent knowledge of mathematics.

Avcı’s research methodology is worthy of greater consideration and replication, given his uncompromising emphasis on finding or creating spaces within a neoliberal mathematics classroom for critical engagement between teacher and students. His methodology is, indeed, consistent with a critical pedagogical approach to mathematics education in that the themes of his inquiry were anchored in his students’ life-world; the inquiry process welcomed ideas that might be considered unpopular within the mainstream curriculum; the participatory approach was facilitated with the students in order to enable their critical engagement and participation; and the process of reflection and self-evaluation was an effective alternative to traditional banking education. Most importantly, the participatory approach supported the evolution of the mathematics classroom as a genuine community, where relationships were based on horizontal dynamics, cooperation, collaboration, and mutual respect—all key critical principles of democratic communities.

Making the Pedagogical More Political

As critical teachers working in schools, we can make the pedagogical more political….One approach might be to organize a radical pedagogy of citizenship around a theory of critical literacy.

                                                                                                              —Henry Giroux[6]

In Schooling and the Struggle for Public Life, Giroux posits important challenges related to the importance of teachers using their knowledge and insights to thoughtfully redefine the terrain of politics and citizenship within the classroom, as also part of a wider collective struggle out in the world. The sense of teachers making the pedagogical more political and organizing their pedagogy around issues of citizenship and critical literacy is at the heart of Bülent Avcı’s study, where he rightly connects his own critical mathematics praxis to issues of citizenship. Democracy here is directly linked to important pedagogical and political questions about dialogue, citizenship, mathematics literacy, neoliberal ideology, political discourses, and students’ development of critical thought.

Drawing on the writings of Freire and Habermas, Avcı asserts the power of critical citizenship to create spaces for individuals and communities to participate in decisions related to their own lives, despite neoliberal constrictions, through forms of political activism that are informed by a public pedagogy. Here, space is created for dialogue, where there is commitment to remain at the table, despite differences and struggles that may ensue. Critical citizenship also requires civic courage to speak the unspeakable and to listen to what might seem the unlistenable, in an effort to create common ground for work together. At the center of the practice of democratic citizenship must be both a healthy skepticism in order to critically question commonsensical notions, as well as working together to translate our common knowledge into social action for transformation. This also points to the manner in which critical literacy can assist teachers and students discern the changes that occur within the social, economic, and political landscape, so that we can respond together more clearly to the conditions we face within schools and communities.

Throughout this excellent book, Avcı provides well-researched and well-written discussions and conclusions that counter the helplessness often experienced by teachers who feel trapped in the colonizing politics and practice of neoliberal life in schools. This can be particularly the case with mathematics education, given its conservative foundational epistemology. Nevertheless, what is heartwarming and encouraging is the manner in which critical mathematics education, when implemented through praxis of reflection, dialogue, and action, resulted in the promotion of critical citizenship and expressions of democratic life within the classroom that encouraged students to embrace democratic values in their relationships within the classroom and beyond.

Avcı provides a powerful conclusion to this study—the first to undertake a participatory critical inquiry that so eloquently connects mathematics education to the struggle for democracy and critical citizenship. Underlying this excellent treatise are critical moral questions related to our responsibility as educators to genuinely make the pedagogical more political if we are indeed committed to a future where mathematics education is no longer the tyrannical boogeyman used to sort and sift away working-class and racialized populations from opportunities within schools and society. Through his study, Bülent Avcı carves a path toward a living mathematics for democracy—a critical mathematics approach fully committed to the making of critical citizens with the knowledge and skills to both participate in and transform their world.

[1] From “The Power of Words” in Siân Miles (2000), Simone Weil: An Anthology (p. 223).
[2] Freire, P. (1971). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.
[3] Einstein, A. (1922). “Geometry and Experience.” Speech delivered to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin and published by Methuen & Co. Ltd. London, UK. Retrieved from: http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Extras/Einstein_geometry.html
[4] Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
[5] Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
[6] Giroux, H. (2005). Schooling and the Struggle for Public Life. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Press.

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