The Knowledge of Non-European Roots of Mathematics Has Never Been a Priority of Education

Mathematics education, like almost everything else we know, is at an inflection point. In calculus terms, “the change of the change” becomes zero. Our “movements” take on a new signage for the slopes ahead. Couple that mathematical metaphor with the physics one — which is simpler — that change in direction can only occur if we stop moving in our current direction.

We cannot be stopped if we are still moving with worn out fixtures of 20th century math education that have resulted in the wearing of our students — and teachers — with demands of stopwatch correctness under a magnifying glass of performance.

Cue the recipe for math anxiety, the very-late symptom of the bigger problem: math alienation. Students feel detached from the mathematical world presented to them, which many eventually drift away from, well before math anxiety shows up.

That is why a long overdue deep dive into examining Western ideas/vision of mathematics education must take place — and through the lens of anti-racism. We are at the precipice of not going back, and even more importantly, hopefully, not wanting to go back.

We have to careful here. In order to truly adopt the philosophical Northern Star that Kafka is pointing us towards — no longer any turning back — we, math educators, collectively, have to go paradoxically far, far, far back.

It is a cryptic arrow forwards. Math education must want to seek its roots.

If the seeking is perfunctory or political, then we can stop right now. It will be a sterile obligation with many missed moments of awe and wonder. More importantly the expedition will not be fearless, that the possibility of what we teach, how we teach, and why we teach mathematics will undergo a heavy audit.

That we will undergo a heavy audit. The conclusions will reveal that the roots that we ignored/took for granted are unsurprisingly strong, nutrient-rich, and wholly responsible for the birth and early development of mathematics.

I started my own audit over 10 years ago, dissatisfied with my own lack of understanding of mathematics.

Ten years later and ten years older, I can thankfully report that, while my knowledge of mathematics has expanded, the massive world that I encountered and continue to walk in has dwarfed my understanding and knowledge. The beauty of life seems to be about the surplus of knowledge and the deficit of time. For me, that is a beautiful tension to hitch my wagon to.

I am more comfortable living in this world that reminds me of my smallness than living in anything that reminds of my largeness.

It is a world so colorful and inviting, that probably one of the most important books on the history of mathematics, had a title to honor the beautiful, yet generally forgotten/dismissed, discoveries of so many different races, cultures, civilizations, and tribes.

The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics

How do we begin to slay the alienation dragon in mathematics. You just have to read the underlined blue section and the first sentence of Chapter One. The next 500 pages is the evidence.

Most historical textbooks, especially those written before this one was(early 90’s) completely ignored the contributions of Africa. Gheverghese says this has been problematic in creating a lack of balance in historical contribution and removes the idea that mathematics is a pancultural phenomenon that manifests itself in different ways.

Roots and telling the stories of those roots restores the balance, humanity, and curiosity all in one shot.

Fast forward to today, everything about mathematics education is constructed through a Western perspective of discovery, purpose, and class distinction.

I wrote/created this image for this article.

It seems, from at least my Twitter feed, that some math educators are willing to embark on this journey with no destination. Destination, being a terminal idea, often has dogma as its traveling companion.

The dogma of 20th century math education is dead. Instead of trying to resuscitate it, we should be exploring and give our attention to the roots of mathematics — the roots of all of us.

The new reality is the strange newness of mathematics’ glorious past. All roads forward in building a new anti-racist, culturally responsive, humanized, and democratized curriculum will go through Rome — Rome being the vault of math history.

Anything else will continue to pay homage to a canon of colonization and an industrialized purpose.

We are at the inflection point in the history of math education. Never has been there a better time to discard our inherited whiteness of mathematics and reinstall its colorful roots.

Author of Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics and Co-Author of Math Recess: Playful Learning in the Age of Disruption. Speaker. Amplify and Mathigon