Saturday, September 27, 2008

Plus ça change (plus c'est la même chose): language and The Math Wars

Jackson Turner Main

In recent posts (see both) at, veteran "math warrior" Wayne Bishop has complained about "so-called Constructivists" and other alleged abuses of "jargon" by what I imagine he thinks of as "so-called progressive educators," and the like. He's very incensed about such language, all the while representing groups like Mathematically Correct and Honest Open Logical Debate (HOLD) whose very names are fascinating examples of propaganda and dissembling, and whose major tactic in the "Math Wars" is to find new epithets for the educators, programs, practices, and ideas they want to destroy.

These are folks who have been tormenting the English language into pretzel-like bits of obfuscation, perhaps the most outlandish being Bishop & Friends' attempt to paint those who support progressive mathematics education reform, affirmative action, or pretty much anything that doesn't fit the MC/HOLD religion, as "racists."

But there's not much new going on. Consider:

They are called the Antifederalists, but it should be made clear at once that they were not antifederal at all. In reality they were determined to preserve the Confederation, and the name, far from being their own choice, was imposed upon them by their opponents, the so-called "Federalists." The attachment to them of a word which denotes the reverse of their true beliefs, and which moreover implies that they were mere obstructionists, without any positive plan to offer, was part of the penalty of defeat. The victors took what name they chose, and fastened on the losers one which condemned them. Since the victory was a lasting one, the name and the stigma have endured.

It was a nice piece of misdirection by the Federalists. Originally, the word "federal" meant anyone who supported the Confederation. Several years before the Constitution was promulgated, the men who wanted a strong national government, who might more properly be called "nationalists," began to appropriate the term "federal" for themselves. To them, the man of "federal principles" approved of "federal measures," which meant those that increased the weight and authority or extended the influence of the Confederation Congress. The word "antifederal" by contrast implied hostility to Congress. According to this definition, the antifederal man was opposed to any effort to strengthen the government and was therefore unpatriotic. Eventually the term became a general word of opprobrium applied by the Nationalists to anyone who opposed their designs. [THE ANTI-FEDERALISTS: Critics of the Constitution 1781-1788, Jackson Turner Main, p. ix]

The difference is that the Math Wars aren't over and the MC/HOLD warriors haven't won. Periodically, Wayne Bishop declares victory, tells us that this or that progressive idea, practice, program, etc., has gone "belly-up," and serves to make clear that he's whistling past yet another graveyard. Nonetheless, it's useful to remind oneself of the power of language and to warn people of good will not to let the bad guys get away with co-opting terminology so as to destroy all meaning.