The Algebra Project and Democratic Politics

The Algebra Project and Democratic Politics

I first read about the Algebra Project in February 1993, in a New York Times Magazine article profiling Bob Moses, the legendary former field director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who in the 1960s had courageously promoted black voter registration and civil rights in Mississippi. Entitled “Mississippi Learning,” the piece celebrated Moses’s current career as a math educator dedicated to enhancing the educational prospects and economic opportunities of poor, mainly African-American children, presenting this career as the true fulfillment of Moses’s prior activity as a democratic activist and civil rights leader.

I found this story heartening, but of little political interest until two years later, when I read Meta Mendel-Reyes’s Reclaiming Democracy: The Sixties in Politics and Memory, and discovered that Reyes too found Moses’s story powerful—as an example of the effacement of historical memory about the true significance of the participatory democracy for which SNCC struggled. Instead of telling this story, Mendel-Reyes wrote, “the Times tells a generic story of a young radical who grew up, setting aside childish politics for a career which promises to improve the lives of individuals without threatening the unequal distribution of power. At most, Moses’s students may be better able to calculate the widening gap between their own incomes and those of the rich.” While praising Moses’s sincerity, Mendel-Reyes questioned “how math literacy can replace the key to citizenship for which Moses and SNCC fought during the sixties: the right to participate fully in politics.” Mendel-Reyes, to be sure, was principally concerned with the Times’s treatment of the “maturation” of Moses the sixties radical rather than with Moses himself, linking this treatment to other instances of media trivialization of sixties radicalism. But she left no doubt that, for her, Moses’s current activities were insufficiently radical, forswearing an assault on “the unequal distribution of power” in favor of a more meliorist, mainstream effort to promote math literacy as a route to conventional economic advancement.

But just what exactly would a wholesale attack on “the unequal distribution of power” look like, and is such a vision even remotely plausible under current conditions? Mendel-Reyes voiced standard “left” charges against meliorism and narrowness of vision; yet it struck me as politically impractical, and set me to thinking anew about Moses and his Algebra Project. What is the political significance of the project? Does it represent an innovative experiment in democratic citizenship or does it embody a conventional, and fairly conservative, vision of schooling as an avenue of individual mobility? Does it represent a compromise with existing institutional arrangements or a creative way of challenging them? The project is intrinsically interesting becau...


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