History of Mathematics: Robert Parris Moses

Earlier today I had the luck of having a conversation with a family friend of mine, and mentioned this very blog that I was planning on writing today, and explained that as of that point had not had a concrete idea of what I wanted to write about. He started talking about a mathematician he knew of who had begun his life as a civil rights activist, took a trip to Africa, returned to America and got his Doctorate in Philosophy of Mathematics, and founded and still runs the Algebra Project, believing that mathematics, if taught properly in early grades, was just as integral as the skill of reading in placing young people from poor communities into the workforce. Researching the life and times of this man, Robert Parris Moses, I thought would provide insight on a piece of the history of mathematics that often goes unspoken, but may be equally as important as what we have studied so far in class about Chinese, Greek, and Islamic contributions to the math we do today, particularly because of its impact on modern mathematics teaching practices.

As a civil rights activist Moses began his work in the 1950’s, and in 1959 helped Bayard Rustin in coordinating the second Youth March for Integrated Schools is Washington, D.C., a movement designed to allow liberal whites from the north the opportunity to demonstrate solidarity with black youths in the south that did not enjoy the benefits of integrated schools. In 1960 be became field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and travelled to Atlanta as a recruiter, then later returned home to Mississippi in 1961 to encourage minority voter registration as a means of getting blacks to seek political power through the vote. After later taking a role in anti-war demonstrations during the Vietnam War, he moved to Canada with his wife in 1967. Soon after he moved to Tanzania, believing that blacks must live independently from whites.

While in Tanzania, Moses taught secondary school mathematics, and in 1976 he moved back to America, and returned to Harvard University to continue his education, doing graduate work in the philosophy of mathematics. Living in Cambridge, Massachusetts he became concerned with his daughter’s mathematics education, and joined with her eighth grade mathematics teacher to provide additional mathematics instruction to students in her school. Together they decided that an appropriate goal for their students was to develop the math skills necessary to qualify for honors-level mathematics and science courses by the time they reached high school. Immediately Moses and the teacher saw results, as students from Martin Luther King School became the first from the school to pass the city-wide algebra examination to qualify for freshmen honors geometry. Previously students from their program were not expected to do well in mathematics, and as a result did not do well, so this breakthrough was noticed by local school officials.

Using resources he received from the MacArthur Foundation Genius award during his master’s degree work, Moses started the Algebra Project. The basis of the Algebra Project has its roots in the same questions that Moses asked his target audience while encouraging blacks to vote, except now he was asking concerned individuals about algebra: “What is algebra for?” and “Why do we want students to study it?” Moses believes that in the near future mathematical skills will join reading and writing skills in the overall definition of literacy. Not only will these skills in mathematics be necessary for college entrance, but also necessary for full participation in economic life in modern society. For the project to be successful Moses believes there needs to be active participation in developing mathematical literacy coming from parents, teachers, and school administrators who share this common goal for today’s youth. Commonly, societal attitudes promote exclusion and regression of minorities, and this extends into education. So the Algebra Project works to reverse those attitudes in the world of mathematics.

In practice, the Project takes the lowest performing students and prepares them to take college-level mathematics courses by the end of high school. While the adjustments made to students’ education is often site-specific, the general method of achieving this is by having students double up on math courses during their four years of high school. The Project also provides curricula guides for students from kindergarten through middle school, as well, and provides training for involved teachers, and peer coaching. Despite launching fairly recently the Algebra Project has caught on nationwide, and was active in over 200 schools across America by the late 1990s.

Thabit ibn Qurra, al Jabr, and Liu Hui are all very significant contributors to the mathematics that we do today. They understood math and noticed patterns that have been generalized over time and can be applied at any grade level of math course around the world. While they largely influenced what we do in mathematics education, I think it is fair to recognize Moses for how we approach mathematics education. It is common for young math students to question why they must take math courses, and Moses was keen enough to answer that question, and provide the groundwork for how to foster that math-positive mindset in his students. As a math educator, I would like to say, “Thank you.”


4 thoughts on “History of Mathematics: Robert Parris Moses

  1. I read _Radical Equations_ and realized that it’s more than just “doubling up” on the amount of math. The instruction is carefully crafted to build concepts, make sense, and connect student language to ‘math language.’ Lots of work, and very worthwhile.


  2. This post was really interesting to read. It was really cool to learn more about moses and his algebra project. which sound really helpful to students. In your last sentence when you say most people don’t understand why they take math courses is so correct all my friends don’t understand and I don’t know why because we use math in our everyday life. So the quote by Moses was dead on! great job!


  3. Very awesome post Nick. I completely agree that there are many individuals in our history, like Robert Moses, that do not receive the attention or admiration in the spotlight so to speak, that they deserve. From my understanding, it seems as though there is some school funding that is tied into the schools performance (I would assume this to be true, but I am not sure. Im sure you probably know, as you are an educator yourself). So it seems, many of these inner city schools, tend to perform sub-par or below standards, which prohibits them from receiving more funds, which could allow them to make improvements, whether it be with their actual workforce, maybe the technology they are using, outdated textbooks, etc. I enjoyed reading this thanks Nick.


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