Social Changelings

Ashley Thorne

The Celtic folklore is full of good stories. Some of them are about changelings, fairy creatures left in place of a human child. Here’s an old tale from Scotland (The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.W.Y. Evans Wentz, 1911):

One day, a young mother went out to shear the sheep, leaving her newborn child at home. She had hired a tailor to work on a web of cloth she had in her house. During the mother’s absence,

All went well till about noon, when the tailor observed the child rising up on its elbow and stretching its hand to a sort of shelf above the cradle and taking down from it a yellow chanter [of a bagpipe]. And then the child began to play.

When the baby began playing the bagpipe, the house was filled with young fairies that danced in long green robes and made the tailor dance with them. The child made the tailor promise to tell no one what he had seen and became babyish once more. But after several days of these frolics, the mother asked the tailor why he wasn’t getting any work done. He said to her, “I urge you after going to bed tonight not to fondle that child, because he is not your child, nor is he a child: he is an old fairy man. And tomorrow at dead tide, go down to the shore and wrap him in your plaid and put him upon a rock.” So the next day, the mother left the infant on a rock by the shore. When she returned home, her own human child was safe in its cradle.  

The story plays on an age-old parental anxiety that never quite goes away. In our disenchanted age, we worry less about fairies snatching a child from the cradle and more about the educational elves trying to ensnare him in their curricula. 

For instance, Clark University recently introduced an MBA concentration in social change. The newborn program was created through a partnership between the university’s Graduate School of Management and the International Development, Community and Environment (IDCE) department. IDCE proudly “focuses on major forces of social change: grass roots initiatives, social movements, government policy, market approaches, entrepreneurship, technological innovation, individual action, and education.” With the introduction of the new concentration, Clark MBA students may now take social change courses that emphasize areas such as “Business for Social Change,” “Social Entrepreneurship,” “Community Development,” and “International Development.”

In general we tend to think that social activism dominates fields like women’s studies, sociology, social work, and environmental studies—but that it will never enter the sciences, math, engineering, and business. It’s easy to see how political correctness can thrive on studies of human interactions, but not on studies of empirical data, which have no use for cause-driven activism. Although this is largely the case, the empirical disciplines don’t always roll their eyes at social change advocacy. Sometimes, they even invite it to stay. So if it sounds like the Clark business program got invaded by the body-snatchers, take a look at some of social justices’s other unlikely haunts within the curriculum.


“Traditional Math is Bad for Society”

There’s a new math textbook out called Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers (2005). On the cover appears a mind-boggling equation:


Reform ±

Multiculturalism x

Inequality /

Poverty ≈

Pop Culture <

Cost of War +

Anti-Bias =

Critical Thinking


Ah, yes. Critical thinking—the term that substitutes for a real curriculum and translates to credulous thoughtlessness—is the answer that will solve inequality and poverty. The idea behind Rethinking Mathematics is to transform math from a dull, tedious subject unconnected with real life into a colorful tapestry of hands-on application to contemporary issues. The authors acknowledge being influenced by the all-purpose radical pedagogues Paulo Freire, who advocated problem-posing in place of fact-dumping; and Howard Zinn, who, in addition to writing his victim-centered textbooks on American history, has denied the objectivity of math.

In the introduction, the authors quote Frieda, then a 9th grader at a Chicago public school. Freida said, “I thought math was just a subject they implanted on us just because they felt like it, but now I realize that you could use math to defend your rights and realize the injustices around you.” The authors argue that math should be adjusted to fit the era: “A social justice approach to math is the appropriate type of math for these unjust times. Traditional math is bad for students and bad for society.” They write that learning about social issues such as “racism and sexism, as well as ecology and social class” are only part of the benefits of rethinking mathematics. Another is “opening up the ‘gates’ that have historically kept students of color, women, working-class and low-income students, and students with perceived disabilities out of advanced mathematics tracks and course offerings.”

But Frustrated Math Teacher, an Amazon reviewer of Rethinking Mathematics, found that the book actually harms minorities academically, because it does not provide adequate math education. Students using this as their math textbook, wrote FMT, “will not have the algebraic skills necessary to succeed in Calculus or Differential Equations.” Frustrated Math Teacher went on:

Nowhere in this book do I see the Math concepts that I (as a high school math teacher) am required to teach my students in Algebra 2 or PreCalculus. (Solving quadratics, polynomials, conic sections, trigonometry, logarithms, etc.) I challenge anyone to find a multicultural way to approach the concept of dividing polynomials or simplifying rational expressions.

It seems that in pondering subjects like “Is environmental racism real?” and “Unequal distribution of U.S. wealth: recognizing inequality” the textbook does not meet Frustrated Math Teacher’s challenge.

Diane Ravitch writing about Rethinking Mathematics in the Wall Street Journal defined “ethnomathematics” as “the belief that different cultures have evolved different ways of using mathematics, and that students will learn best if taught in the ways that relate to their ancestral culture.” But can math be taught relative to culture? Unlike most other academic disciplines, math is a universal language, and, once learned, constant across cultures. It is true that some cultures didn’t develop much math on their own, but that has generally not been a reason to deny living people of the benefits of ideas and technologies their ancestors failed to discover. We don’t deny Peruvians the use of wheeled vehicles just because the Inca lacked them. 

Because it is universal, math has boundaries that can’t be wished away. To flee from its objective bounds is to teach something other than math. And that, as Diane Ravitch points out, disserves American students, who will get beat out by those from other countries where math is taught as a universal pattern, not a political stimulus.

Rethinking Mathematics is on required reading lists for courses at numerous institutions, including Stanford, Iowa State University, the University of Alabama, the University of Arizona, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


More Rethinking

Well, there’s another “Rethinking” textbook: Wolff-Mich Roth’s Rethinking Scientific Literacy (Critical Social Thought) (2004), which is taught at the University of Georgia and referenced by hundreds of scholars. Interestingly, one of this book’s chapters is entitled, “Dangerous Teaching: Using Science as Tool and Context to Work for Social Justice.” What does he mean by dangerous?

I checked the Dangerous Book for Boys. Plenty of danger there: dinosaurs, bows and arrows, tripwires, spiders, girls. But nothing of the dangers of science teaching. I also checked “The Daring Girls Guide to Danger.”  Roller coasters. White-water rafting. Scary movies. High heels. Nope: no science teaching. I also checked Sax’s Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials, 11th edition. Lots on asbestos. Nothing on science teachers. 

So what dangers does Wolff-Mich Roth have in mind—apart from pronouncing his name as fast as you can five times in a row?   Is he warning his readers of the folly of mixing science and social justice? No. In fact, what makes science teaching to advance social justice dangerous in Wolff-Mich Roth-speak is that it puts science teachers courageously on the barricades against the oppressors. Teachers who embrace his vision will find themselves in “uncharted waters.” Roth argues that “a radical political stance in science education is a dangerous, but wholly necessary, stance for teachers to take with their students.” Why is it wholly necessary? According to Roth, the science education community is bound by a duty to foster “a critically scientifically literate and socially just global society.”

I doubt that many scientists would agree that a “radical political stance” is “wholly necessary” to science or that scientists have a duty to pursue global social justice.  Thomas Henry Huxley didn’t seem to think so either when he called science “nothing but trained and organized common sense” (1893).  Adam Smith referred to science as “the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.” Organized common sense has little need for radical politics and the great antidote to poison doesn’t need to be mixed with the strychnine of ideology.

Wolff-Mich Roth clearly fancies himself as one of the few who like to live dangerously. We recommend that he give science education a break and take up spiders—or roller coasters. 



An MBA program on social change, ethnomathematics for ninth graders, science instruction as an agent of social justice—these are clearly only a few of the instruments of today’s educational elves who are intent on ensnaring students. They have in common that high, penetrating, and distinctive note as of a bagpipe, that announces that a teacher is about to toss off the needs of his students and the pursuit of truth in favor of a jig with fashionable nostrums for fixing society. It’s a troubling sound and we should take warning:

Up the airy mountain

Down the rushy glen,

We daren't go a-hunting,

For fear of little men;  

The little men in William Allingham’s rushing poem are indeed to be feared. Recall:

They stole little Bridget
For seven years long;
When she came down again
Her friends were all gone.

It was easy enough when the little PC men (and women) stole the little Bridgets of fields like English, psychology, and sociology. Now they have come back for the little Lachlans of business, math, and science. 


And this is to say nothing of the frolic of social justice in choral music.

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