Story problems

You want to have interesting conversations with your neighbors? Go knock on some doors carrying a petition and ask them whether they’ll help you get on the ballot for your local school board election.

I fear we are on the verge of having a story problem in our schools.

I mean, that’s the only way I ever encountered a question like “What’s your position on the schools teaching all kinds of deviant understandings of race and gender?” A neighbor down the street asked me that.

I replied: “What do you mean by deviant understandings?”

After a couple of rounds of beating around the bush, it comes down to this. “If you’re on the schoolboard, will you stand up against allowing the use of a math textbook that includes a story problem about a kid named Timmy who has two daddies?”

I’m not going to pretend that I think my neighbor is a horrible person for feeling this way. I know a lot of people who feel that way. When I was his age (I’d guess he’s twenty or twenty-five years younger than me) I might have said the same thing.

This neighbor believes it’s best for every child to be reared in a family that has a mommy and a daddy. Having just buried my mother recently, and my father fourteen years ago, I can tell you I am so deeply grateful for my two parents! I wish every child in the world could have two such parents. I’ll admit it: I think it would be best for every child to have a mommy and a daddy. But I would further specify that the mommy and daddy should not be poor, shouldn’t fight with each other and other people, shouldn’t get separated or divorced, should read to the child a lot, and should a long list of other shoulds, and should not another long list of should-nots. What a wonderful world it would be if I could prescribe the conditions in which every child is raised!

Or would it? Do I really know enough to be the prescriber of such things for everyone? And what if you can meet some of the desiderata but not others? Regardless of who’s defining the ideal, how many kids get raised in completely ideal circumstances? Is it better to be raised in grinding poverty by a daddy and a mommy who don’t get divorced but never read to you and fight a lot, or to be raised with adequate material support by two daddies (or two mommies) who read to you all the time and model for you every virtue pertaining to mutual support and faithfulness? And what about all the kids who have parents who abuse them emotionally, or physically, or even sexually? There are a lot of non-ideal families out there. Having two daddies who love you, or two mommies, is not the worst thing that can happen to you. Not by a long shot. As I told my neighbor: I think I am personally aware of families in which two daddies are doing a great job of raising kids together. I don’t think those kids’ schools’ should rigorously exclude references to families like theirs throughout the curriculum.

Because even if you or I think we can describe the ideal family, is it the job of the writer of a math textbook to use story problems to construct an ideal world? Or is it the job of the writer of a math textbook to write story problems that are plausible for the students who are going to be using the book, that reflect the everyday world of those students? And if it is the latter—doesn’t it have to be worlds, plural? Because not every fourth- or seventh- or eleventh-grade student lives in the same world. You do realize that, don’t you? Our school districts, our states, and our nation, include people of many different social strata and cultural and religious traditions. The public schools are meant to serve them all, and to educate them all in a way that produces a citizenry of people who understand each other, respect each other, want each other to enjoy the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is not the school’s job to reinforce your child’s certainty that their own family’s cultural, social, and religious distinctives are superior to everyone else’s. It is certainly not the school’s job to hide from them the fact that that other ways of life even exist.

And story problems in math books are not the main problem. It’s not hard to keep math story problems generic and inoffensive. I guess that’s what I would do if I were writing a math textbook. But what about stories read in literature classes? What about the real-life stories read in history books? Once you start down the road of insisting that the only permissible stories are ones that align with your sense of how the world ought to be, you are on the road to utopia, to fantasyland, to ideological indoctrination. In this world, the real and the ideal (regardless of who is defining it) are two different things. Getting those two categories confused eventually, at some distance down the road, produces oppression, totalitarianism, and bloodshed. If you don’t think so, try reading some history. Or some world news.

I fear we are on the verge of having a story problem in our schools. A big story problem. Namely, the insistence by an ideological movement—and historically, this happens both with movements of the Right and movements of the Left—that only the One True Story may be told, and that story is the one that Our Side favors, and all other stories must be suppressed.

This is very different from listening to many different stories, discussing them critically in light of your own core values, and deciding which kind of story you want to live, and how you will live that story in some kind of harmony with people who are living different stories. This is what education should be.

So I said to my neighbor: if you want a school board member who is going to stand up and object if a math textbook includes a story problem in which Timmy has two daddies, I’m not your guy.

He didn’t sign my petition. That’s fine. He wished me well. He told me that if I’m elected he’ll pray for me to serve well and make good decisions. I deeply appreciate that.

I wonder whether he expects when his kids are grown up they will agree with him about such things. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. I don’t think he’s going to be able to control that outcome by censoring their school textbooks.

I wish I had thought to say this to him: If your kids come home from school asking questions about things they heard in school that are different from what they heard at home or in church, I hope that you will think: Good! My children are beginning to see that the world is full of all kinds of people and ideas, and they are coming home and asking me questions, and this gives us a chance to discuss within our family topics that might not have occurred to me. That’s good for us, and for our neighborhood, and for our school district, and our country, and our world.

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