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RADICAL EQUATIONS: Math, Literacy, and Civil Rights.

RADICAL EQUATIONS: Math, Literacy, and Civil Rights by Bob Moses and Charles E. Cobb, Jr. Beacon Press, $21.00

BOB MOSES IS ONE OF THE most famous veterans of the Southern black freedom struggle. A legendary organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Moses headed up SNCC's work in Mississippi and was the guiding force behind the 1964 "Freedom Summer" project that culminated in the unsuccessful effort to seat an integrated Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Soon after that defeat, Moses left SNCC and moved, first to Canada, and then to Tanzania, remaining away from the United States until 1977.

Both in the years before he joined the Southern struggle and during his years in Tanzania, Bob Moses worked as a math teacher. Once he returned to the states, Moses re-entered the Harvard Ph.D. program he had dropped out of 20 years earlier. When he expressed disappointment with the insufficiently challenging level of mathematics instruction his eldest daughter was receiving in the eighth grade of a Cambridge public school in 1982, her teacher responded by inviting Moses to become a volunteer algebra instructor in her classroom.

Thanks in part to an unsolicited five-year grant from the MacArthur Foundation, Moses used his voluntary teaching as a springboard toward building what by the mid-1980s was officially christened "The Algebra Project": a program designed to allow all high school students access to college-prep level mathematics by introducing them to the principles of algebra during the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades.

Radical Equations is the story of how the Algebra Project has developed and expanded over the past 15 years. Written primarily by Moses's one-time SNCC colleague Charles E. Cobb, Jr., the book details why Moses assigns such importance to middle-school algebra instruction and explains the powerful linkage Moses sees between a present-day mathematics curriculum that challenges students to devote themselves to academic schoolwork and the political-organizing legacy of the Mississippi voting-rights movement.

The first part of Moses' case is straightforward: "Economic access and full citizenship depend crucially on math and science literacy," yet in much of America, "illiteracy in math is acceptable the way that illiteracy in reading and writing is unacceptable." Moses's goal of making college-level mathematics accessible to all high school students is, however, only an initial step toward a broader agenda. "The Algebra Project is first and foremost an organizing project--a community organizing project--rather than a traditional program of school reform," he and Cobb emphasize.

Moses wants to motivate his young students to demand a first-rate education both from their communities and from themselves. Radical Equations frankly acknowledges "the huge problem we have in the schools," but goes on to describe how some of the young alumni of early Algebra Project classes are now having better success than their elders at recruiting other young people into the program. By making "algebra `cool,' a hip thing for other young people," the small band of alumni are able to recruit "teenagers committed to after-school and weekend study at the expense of their regular pleasures" For Moses, the nascent political potential of this commitment is huge. "The only ones who can really demand the kind of education they need and the kind of changes needed to get it are the students, their parents, and their community," as distinct from simply "well-intentioned, `radical' reformers." Can the young people "create a culture in which they begin to make a demand on themselves and then on the larger society?" Moses and Cobb ask.

Starting in 1992, the Algebra Project began to focus much of its energies on Mississippi, and Moses recruited his one-time co-director of the 1964 Freedom Summer Project, David Dennis, to head up this new Mississippi project. In a foreword to Radical Equations, Dennis discusses how, in launching the Algebra Project in Mississippi: "We started with the kids. The kids then pulled in their parents." This, of course, is exactly the same method that Moses used in 1961, when he first went to the southwest Mississippi town of McComb to initiate SNCC's organizing work in what was then the most dangerous Southern state. Dennis correctly notes that "the 1960s movement in Mississippi and across the country was driven by the young people," and he and Moses clearly envision how the Algebra Project could serve as a political spark-plug. They would just need enough young people to become convinced that the quality of education that America's public schools afford them is an issue around which they and their families ought to organize.

Radical Equations traces the experiences that Algebra Project programs have had in a variety of American school districts and admits how "we have had our ups and downs with school administrations" all across the country. Moses himself now spends much of his time teaching in a Jackson, Mississippi, middle school not far from where his one-time Mississippi colleague Medgar W. Evers was assassinated in 1963. Moses remains a soft-spoken and ascetic figure, someone whose entire movement experience has taught him that encouraging people to articulate their own demands is a far more profound and radical course of action than telling them what is in their own best interest. Now, 40 years after he first went to McComb, Bob Moses's upper-most principle of teaching and organizing remains what it was then: "Work with people and leadership will emerge."

DAVID J. GARROW is the Presidential Distinguished Professor at Emory University's School of Law.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Garrow, David J.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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