Reply to AMS Blog post “Math Education Researchers Deserve Respect”

This AMS blog post criticises people who criticise mathematics education research. Educational researchers “deserve respect”; “they, like mathematicians, are experts in their fields”. The critics are “arrogant” and exhibit “knee-jerk reactions” based on “a few inflammatory news articles”.

The author emphasises the Gutiérrez case and is perhaps right as far as that goes, but as a general dismissal of critiques of mathematics education I think it is very problematic. There are many legitimate critiques of mathematics education research, and dismissing them in this manner is in my view counterproductive and not consistent with the author’s call for humility.

Consider an analogy. A hundred years ago there was much scholarly literature justifying oppression of women, homosexuals, certain ethnic groups, etc. Today everyone agrees that that entire body of scholarly literature was just plain stupid. The most admirable people were the small minority who dared to say so.

The logic of the AMS blog post would not be on the right side of history. It mirrors the voice of the oppressors, who defended the bigoted research. At that time the same rhetoric would have gone: Stop with your “inflammatory” “knee-jerk” critique of fine researchers who explain why blacks and homosexuals are inferior human beings. These are “experts in their fields” who “deserve respect” dammit!

Just as idiotic, bigoted “research” a hundred years ago was rotten to its core, so we must be open to the possibility that the same is true for mathematics education today. Therefore we must allow criticisms of the field, and not ban critical thinking in the name of “respect.”

It is not healthy to ban outsider critiques of scholarly fields. Saying that it’s “arrogant” for people who are not “experts in the field” to criticise it is a recipe for intellectual stagnation.

This framing is basically tantamount to banning critical thinking altogether. For to become an “expert in the field” you must pass through a PhD program ran by people in the field, publish papers peer-reviewed by people in the field, get hired by people in the field, etc. By construction, therefore, an “expert in the field” is one who thrives in the status quo. The current fashions loves them, and they love the current fashions. That’s what their success means, virtually by definition.

Someone critical of the field, on the other hand, cannot pass through these screening stages, and hence will never, by definition, be an “expert in the field.” I, for example, spent two years in PhD program in mathematics education. But I left the field because I was critical of its methods. The field maintains its cozy consensus by weeding out people like me long before they become “experts.” No wonder, then, that all “experts” agree with each other.

Hence outsider critiques is the only genuine critique there is. To dismiss it as “arrogant” “knee-jerk reactions” of people who should show more deferential “respect” toward “experts” amounts to banning critical thinking from the field of mathematics education.