I’m hesitant to wade into the #DisruptTexts debate. I’m a math teacher, what do I know about choosing texts to read in English classes? But I’ve learned a lot observing the important work of questioning the traditional literary canon. I am sad to see bad-faith attacks that mischaracterize what #DisruptTexts is about, and I’d like to offer my perspective on the movement.
First, I want to engage with a legitimate argument for the canon. I read The Crucible in school. It explores a literal witch hunt, written during the era of McCarthyism in the United States. The play gives context to a historical era that I hope we can learn from. The play also gives context to the phrase “witch hunt.” I have a better understanding of that phrase and its implications because I’ve read The Crucible. One important aspect of this type of learning is that it’s often implicit. When I hear the phrase “witch hunt” I don’t immediately think of John Proctor, but my knowledge still helps me to better understand the world around me. This is only one example. There are other places in the traditional canon that build useful knowledge. And that’s the argument for the canon: these texts have stood the test of time, form a foundation for what it means to be educated, and provide access to cultural references.
There’s a caricature going around that #DisruptTexts is about banning books and throwing out the canon entirely. That’s not what I’ve observed. Instead, #DisruptTexts is about interrogating what students learn from the texts they read, and making informed decisions about what they should read and how they should read it. For instance, the website has a great article discussing The Crucible. Reading that article I learned a lot that I didn’t notice when I read the play in school. The play deals in stereotypes and elevates some perspectives at the expense of others. So while I learned useful lessons about witch hunts, the text also reinforced stereotypes and tired narratives about good intentions that also impact how I see the world today. A lot of that learning is implicit, but still shapes the way what young people learn in school. #DisruptTexts isn’t about banning or censoring. It’s about unpacking the lessons students learn from texts, teaching traditional texts with a critical eye toward those lessons, and replacing others with new, valuable perspectives.
The Crucible offered me one useful lesson, but those lessons aren’t unique to the traditional canon. In the last few years I have developed a deeper understanding of police violence by reading The Hate U Give, a deeper understanding of the complexities of immigration by reading Exit West, and a deeper understanding of prejudice by reading the Broken Earth trilogy. The canon doesn’t have a monopoly on important knowledge or important learning. That’s why I support the work of #DisruptTexts. I read far too many white authors and traditional narratives when I was in school. More diverse voices and perspectives would have enriched my education and broadened my world, and I’m still doing work to play catch-up.
So where does math come into this? I think that the #DisruptTexts folks are way ahead of any comparable efforts in the math community. The closest thing to a canon in math class is probably our race through algebra to calculus. There are lots of types of mathematical thinking, and we choose to value complicated symbol-pushing and abstraction as the end goal of high school math education. That’s a choice — there are lots of other directions we could head. We could choose statistics, probability, mathematical modeling, number theory, computer science, data science, and more.
Why do we teach algebra? There’s an argument for it, definitely. It’s the foundation of the math we use in disciplines like engineering. But there are also arguments against it. What I love about #DisruptTexts is the dialogue and community. They create space to have hard conversations around what texts to read, how best to read them, and what they want students to learn. Those are conversations I wish we had more in the math education community. Too often math educators see curriculum and standards as static, taking what we teach for granted and trying to figure out the best way to teach within those contraints.
To be fair, there are plenty of efforts heading in this direction. NCTM released Catalyzing Change, which addressed many of these themes, and plenty of schools are having similar conversations. But they haven’t percolated to the surface the same way #DisruptTexts has. And I admire the depth and sophistication of the conversations I see around the texts teachers use in English class. We need to ask some of those same questions. What do students actually learn from algebra – not what we wish they would learn, but what they actually learn? What knowledge do students use implicitly, without realizing they are using it? When do they use that knowledge? Which pieces are useful, and which are worth scrapping? What do we most want students to be able to do with math outside of the math classroom? To what extent do we teach students that they are bad at math? Would that change if we changed what we taught? What other implicit lessons do we teach without realizing it? What is the hidden curriculum of math class?
These questions and more are worth asking. And again, I know many teachers ask them every day. But #DisruptTexts provides a model for what it looks like to build a community around asking hard questions, and engaging in dialogue about those questions. I think we have a lot to learn, and I’m very grateful to the #DisruptTexts folks for offering a model that we can learn from.