Reality check: mathematics is not racist
Engaging with students on the history of mathematics would do far more than pretending that the subject abounds with racism
I spent time at the University of Oregon as a post-graduate student in mathematics during the 1970s. It was predominantly White, so I was intrigued when a friend sent me a link to a recent program in the Oregon Department of Education which encouraged middle school teachers to use a toolkit for “Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction”. The toolkit includes a list of ways that “White supremacy culture” allegedly “infiltrates math classrooms”. It states that: “we see White supremacy culture in the mathematics classroom can show up when … the focus is on getting the ‘right’ answer”, and even criticises assessment when “students are required to show their work”.
One cannot expect really talented teachers of maths and physics at most schools
Look, let’s be sensible. There are two main concerns, one positive, the other very negative. On the positive side is the issue of role models. Women in particular have lamented the lack of female research mathematicians to look up to, but this has been slowly changing for decades as more women do PhDs, engage in research, and take academic positions in universities. It can’t be done overnight because some girls who might not consider studying the subject at a higher level have to be persuaded that it’s worth doing if their talents lie in that direction. Then it takes years before they finally acquire tenured positions in mathematics departments. This has now been going on for a long time, and things have changed substantially. Out of the five mathematics departments I worked in, two had female heads during my time there. Role models can be a very positive influence, and if the issue is ethnic minorities, then they should certainly be encouraged if they have the talent, but it too will take time.
The other concern is how mathematics is taught, and here we run into trouble. In my experience at school the worst taught subject was physics, but for many people the problem is maths. Whichever it is both are vibrant subjects where new things are perpetually being discovered, and it can be a bit deadly if the teacher simply regurgitates old and well understood facts. In mathematics I learned most things on my own which was exciting in itself, but in physics my philosophical questions were answered by an appeal to Newton in the seventeenth century, and I got nowhere with my teacher.
This was at a grammar school. Elsewhere it may have been worse, and one cannot expect really talented teachers of maths and physics at most schools. But engaging with students on the history of mathematics would do far more than pretending that the subject abounds with racism. Indeed, its history brings in other cultures ranging from the far east to the near east and is well within the range of middle school teachers.
You can bet your life that the Chinese, Indians, Sumerians and Babylonians did not tolerate sloppy schoolwork
For example, one could explain how the “Chinese Remainder Theorem” was used to count the size of ancient Chinese armies. Further west one could explain how the Indians in the sixth century BC produced our familiar base-10 “place-value” system to write numbers, where a sequence of digits such as 372 means 3 hundreds, 7 tens and 2 units — very different from Roman numerals, and not used by the later Greeks or Romans. Further west still one reaches Mesopotamia where the Sumerians invented a base-60 “place-value” system and developed serious mathematics involving square roots and quadratic equations, and where the Babylonians later created mathematical astronomy using the idea of 360 degrees in a circle, further developed by the Arabic world.
None of these people were white in the sense meant by the anti-racism propaganda. The Chinese were east Asian, the Indians were mainly Dravidian and Indo-European, the Babylonians were Semitic, and the Sumerians called themselves the “black-headed ones”. All these people were keen on precision and getting the “right” answer. Greeks living in Egypt during the time of Euclid would write down mathematical arguments in irrefutable detail, and you can bet your life that the Chinese, Indians, Sumerians and Babylonians did not tolerate sloppy schoolwork from kids who couldn’t explain what they were doing. Skin colour is irrelevant, and if it comes to the popular culture for young Black men the two main themes are rap music and football. Neither thrives in a sloppy atmosphere of getting things muddled up, so let’s treat teenagers with enough respect to expect them to do the best they can.
When I lived in Oregon there were very few people of non-White ethnicity, and according to the World Population Review over 84 per cent of the population is White today. I think it’s a safe bet that their department of education is run by White people, so my message to them is: get a grip guys; learn some history, and get the teachers to learn it too. If you pretend that getting things right, so important in music and sports, is of little consequence in mathematics then you do the students a serious disservice.
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