Monday, August 13, 2012

The ideology of word problems

I'm reading Vasily Grossman's A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army 1941-1945, an assemblage of Grossman's wartime journalism. The writing is fascinating and amazing, but translator/editor Antony Beevor is generally peevish and wont to toss in generous heaps of bullshit in his commentary.

But never mind peevish Beevor -- in the middle of the book, in early 1943, Grossman is assigned to the Kalmyk steppes, recently vacated by the retreating German army. He reports on what life was like in the city of Elista under the Nazis. Grossman includes an interview with a school teacher who continued to teach through the occupation. The teacher describes the changes the Nazis made to the curriculum, and includes this great tidbit:
Maths: they removed from the textbook all the questions to do with Soviet affairs [and replaced them with]: this number of Soviet aircraft has been shot down, etc. (p. 207)
and a few pages later:
At the school, teacher Klara Fransevna set first-year pupils the problem: 'Two Messerschmitts have shot down eight Red fighters and twelve bombers, and an anti-aircraft gun shot down eleven Bolshevik attack aircraft. What is the total of Red aircraft shot down?' (p. 210)
An extreme example, to be sure, but I believe Eric Gutstein made the point that teaching math is also ideological, in his Reading and Writing the World with Mathematics?