Radical Gift

Radical Gift

Reviewed by J. Todd Moye

Vol. 24, No. 1-2, 2002 pp. 18-19

Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb, Jr., Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001. With a foreword by David Dennis.

You may not know it, but as you read this Ella Baker, Amzie Moore, and Fannie Lou Hamer are teaching kids to use complex graphing calculators in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Indianola, Mississippi; and Chicago, Illinois.

Well…not quite. But Bob Moses and Dave Dennis, veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, have used the organizing techniques and concepts they learned from Baker, Hamer, Moore, and others to teach lessons in math and citizenship to more than 40,000 underserved schoolchildren. Their Algebra Project is a community-organizing effort disguised as a school reform program.

In Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights, Moses and Charles Cobb tell the story of the Algebra Project’s development and relate its early successes. They make a compelling case that the stakes are just as high for the schoolchildren who are being “tracked” out of advanced math classes today as they were for the Mississippi sharecroppers who were until recently denied the right to vote. And, they argue, the changes that the Algebra Project organizing can produce will be just as revolutionary as the changes wrought by voter registration organizing have been since the 1960s.

The Algebra Project began quite by accident in 1982 when Moses asked his daughter’s eighth-grade math teacher if she could begin a more advanced program of study. The teacher responded by asking Moses to come in and teach algebra himself. (The request wasn’t as crazy as it might seem. Moses had taught mathematics at the elite Horace Mann School in Manhattan before the Civil Rights Movement took him to Mississippi, and in 1982 he was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award and a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard.) The first thing Moses noticed was that the classroom–in the progressive Martin Luther King, Jr., School in Cambridge, no less–was skewed along racial and class lines. Upper-middle-class white students were doing advanced math and a mixture of white students and children of color, all middle-class, performed at grade level. A third group of minority students and working-class whites was being taught remedial math. Moses began searching for ways to show all students that they could expect more of themselves.

Because Moses was “really a parent-organizer as much as a teacher,” he could be creative in his methods. Since then, he and his students in the Algebra Project have developed a truly innovative curriculum and spread the project into dozens of inner-city and rural school districts throughout the country. (Dave Dennis heads the Southern Initiative of the Algebra Project.

When students begin the Algebra Project curriculum the emphasis seems to be on teaching basic algebra concepts that will open doors to more advanced study. As an educational reform the program relies heavily on experiential learning and youth culture. Students go on field trips introducing them to concrete examples of the mathematical concepts they study, and then convince other kids that it’s cool to learn math. Older students teach algebra to younger students, and all learn. On this level alone the Algebra Project has been wildly successful.

Math test scores have increased dramatically in nearly every school system that has embraced the program, but that is not how Moses measures the Algebra Project’s success. The key transformation occurs, he says, not when more students start learning more advanced mathematical concepts but when students begin organizing and demanding equal access to educational opportunities. “Even the development of some sterling new [mathematics]

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curriculum–a real breakthrough–would not make us happy if it did not empower the target population to demand access to literacy for everyone,” Moses claims.

The Algebra Project’s underlying philosophy is similar to the one that motivated Moses’ Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) four decades ago. In order to create real change, he writes, young people “have to demand what everyone says they don’t want”-just as sharecroppers had to demand the right to vote. And just as Blacks demanding and attaining the right to vote changed southern society a generation ago, Moses thinks, middle school students demanding and attaining equal access to math literacy will change America in the 21st century.

Bob Moses served as SNCC’s Mississippi field director and embodied the organization’s motto “Let the People Decide.” He may have been the most un-leaderly leader of any social movement in American history, which somehow made him all the more charismatic. Moses’ SNCC colleagues in Mississippi would have walked through walls for him, and the power that he convinced local people to find in themselves was literally overwhelming. After SNCC imploded, Moses moved with his family to Tanzania, where he worked for Julius Nyerere’s Ministry of Education. For the most part he stayed out of the public eye even after returning to the United States in 1976, until the Algebra Project again thrust him into community organizing.

Radical Equations includes a long section of Moses’ meditations on the Mississippi movement of the 1960s. Students of the movement have been pining for Moses’ memoirs for a long time, and this may be the closest they ever come to reading them. This aspect of the book does not disappoint; Moses and Cobb seem incapable of composing a sentence about the Civil Rights Movement that does not include a piercing insight. “One of the valuable lessons of the Southern Civil Rights Movement is that you have to shake free of other people’s definitions of who you are and what you are willing and able to do,” they write, and this lesson clearly informs all aspects of the Algebra Project.

Charles Cobb, it must be said, is uniquely qualified to co-write this book. In 1962, when Cobb was a student at Howard University, he hopped on a bus bound for a CORE workshop on nonviolent direct action in Houston. On a stopover in Jackson, Mississippi, he got off the bus and found the local SNCC office. “How come you’re going to Texas for a civil rights conference when you’re right here in Mississippi [where all the action is]?” Tougaloo College student Lawrence Guyot asked. Guyot regaled Cobb with stories of SNCC’s voter registration efforts in the Delta-and the violent white responses they produced-and Cobb was hooked. Moses moved him to Ruleville, Mississippi, in the heart of the Delta, to register voters that fall.

By 1964 Cobb had diagnosed the underlying disease that affected the uneducated and disfranchised Black sharecroppers of Mississippi: they lived in a culture that told them repeatedly that they did not deserve a decent education, that they had no reason to want to vote. What they needed was an alternative culture that would allow them to define themselves. Cobb suggested that SNCC help the Black people of Mississippi create their own educational institutions so they could decide for themselves what they were capable of doing. This developing culture manifested itself most beautifully in 1964 with the creation of the Freedom Schools. No one individual was responsible for the idea of the Freedom Schools, but Cobb deserves a great deal of the credit. That spirit is clearly alive in the Algebra Project.

Moses is convinced that math literacy can be an organizing tool for education and economic access in the new century just as voter registration was for political access in the 1960s. We can only hope he is right. According to Department of Labor statistics, by 2010 every American job will require significant technological skills. Hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren in America’s poor and Black communities simply are not being prepared to compete for those positions. Jobs that require computer literacy already pay at least 15 percent more than those that do not, and the gap will surely widen in the coming decades.

Across America, low expectations for certain children are ensuring that high-paying careers will never be available to them unless school systems radically change the way they teach math and relate to students. Moses believes that “the absence of math literacy in urban and rural communities is an issue as urgent as the lack of black registered voters was in Mississippi in 1961.” Read this book, and you will agree. In several years we may consider Radical Equations, equal parts memoir and manifesto, the most important civil rights book of the new century.

J. Todd Moye is the director of the National Park Service’s Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project.