Radical Algebra: Who Figures in Equations?

Radical Algebra: Who Figures in Equations?

Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights
by Robert P. Moses with Charles E. Cobb, Jr.
Beacon Press, 2001, 192 pp., $21

 

Is math education today’s civil rights struggle? Are children in inner-city and poor rural schools the dispossessed sharecroppers of our age? Does a student who learns algebra in the middle school years, like a sharecropper who registered to vote for the first time in the 1960s, then possess the means to reach the “promised land” of full citizenship? In Radical Equations, Bob Moses, the legendary organizer of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) Mississippi Freedom Summer and voter registration drives, joins with a former SNCC colleague, Charles Cobb, to raise these questions and to make a powerful argument that the answer is yes.

Radical Equations consists of two distinct, but related, narratives. The first is the story of Moses’s participation in the  civil rights movement and the second is the tale of how he organized the Algebra Project, employing the lessons he had drawn from his civil rights movement experiences. The account of the civil rights movement highlights Moses’s vision of grassroots organizing, a process in which ordinary men and women engage the issues that are important to their community and, in so doing, empower themselves, developing into leaders of a democratic, participatory mobilization. It is this vision that Moses brings to his work on the Algebra Project, a program to teach algebra to middle school students in inner-city and poor rural schools. (For an overview of the Algebra Project, visit www.algebra.org .) Begun in 1982, the program is now in place in more than twenty sites in thirteen states.

At first glance, there seems to be a world of difference between organizing people to vote—the most basic of citizenship rights—and organizing young adolescents to master algebra. But Moses makes a persuasive argument that in a knowledge-based economy, young people who are not literate and numerate are denied access to productive work and to meaningful participation in society. Disproportionately poor and of color, these students end up in a sharecropper-like status of poverty, deprivation, and marginality. Algebra, according to Moses, is a “gate keeper” course: those who master it in the middle school years are on a college track, those who do not are fortunate if they complete high school. Algebra, like voting rights in the 1960s, is the key to full citizenship.