What’s wrong with the Museum of Math?

I’d like to bring attention to an open letter cosigned by several staff members of the National Museum of Mathematics (hereinafter MoMath) and addressed to its board of directors and CEO, Cindy Lawrence. In the comments of a blog post of Sam Shah, several other staff members corroborate the allegations in the letter.

While you really should read the open letter and comments yourself, I would like to in particular stress how outrageous the allegation about the policy of MoMath concerning Title I schools is. Recall that Title I schools are those public schools which have been identified as having a large amount of low-income students, and which have been given additional funding from the US Department of Education in order to promote those students’ educations. If the allegation is true, MoMath offers scholarships to allow Title I schools to have field trips to MoMath for free, but then discriminates against them by having shorter educational sessions, so that students will not have time to solve the problems that they are posed. This can only serve to discourage them from mathematics, leaving everyone worse off.

Math is for everybody, and this is more than just a flashy slogan. Public American K-12 education is notorious for spreading the philosophy that mathematics is an innate ability, rather than a skill that can be trained; this creates a clear inequity between those children (typically of wealthier, more educated parents) who believe that they can do mathematics, and those who do not, which later carries over to income inequality in adulthood. Moreover, one cannot really do away with incentives for students to learn mathematics. On a less economic and more aesthetic level, MoMath’s mission statement proposes to encourage “broad and diverse audience to understand the evolving, creative, human, and aesthetic nature of mathematics” — a task that it has evidently failed at.

My high school was woefully underfunded, though not Title I. Our treatment of mathematics was shallow and only a tiny percentage of my class ended up taking any math beyond Calculus 1 in high school. I really had no idea what mathematics was, or that one could pursue it as a career — I ended up in this business somewhat by accident! Something like MoMath would have been a wonderful experience for me, and probably many of my classmates who never really learned what mathematics was. The same holds, I suspect, for many students at Title I schools. But even those who are able to visit MoMath will have any benefits from the trip denied to them.

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