I’m on the left, but I have no patience with academic leftism. I don’t really consider academic leftism to be progressive at all. Leftists and liberals concern themselves with actual abuses of power; academic leftists worry about menaces to society such as the general acclaim for Shakespeare -- excuse me, the “privileging” of Shakespeare’s “texts” -- or the very existence of the scientific method. And academic leftists sometimes seem to be working to undo what real leftists and liberals are trying to accomplish. The real left pursues DNA testing to free wrongly convicted inmates; the academy claims there’s no such thing as objective scientific truth. The real left defends the notion that homosexuality is innate and fights fundamentalist quacks who claim they can reverse it; the academy insists that all sexuality is “socially constructed.”
This is a long way of saying that I’m very, very skeptical of “ethnomathematics,” an academic-lefty concept discussed in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. Ethnomathematics is not merely the study of overlooked mathematical practices in other cultures -- which certainly seems like a good idea -- but is an attempt to alter the teaching of math by making the math curriculum detour through those non-Western mathematical practices. This is somehow supposed to help minorities and women overcome math difficulties.
The Times quotes the father of ethnomathematics, a Brazilian mathematician named Ubiratan D'Ambrosio, on why math teaching should go ethnic:
“Mathematics is absolutely integrated with Western civilization, which conquered and dominated the entire world. The only possibility of building up a planetary civilization depends on restoring the dignity of the losers.”
It sounds so much cooler and more mellifluous when a non-American says it, but what D’Ambrosio is talking about is teaching self-esteem. I hate the overemphasis on self-esteem in education almost as much as right-wing blowhards do; the right-wing blowhards, I think, are actually right when they rant about this. Let’s not teach a man to fish; let’s not even give him a fish; let’s just tell him he has dignity in spite of the fact that he doesn’t have a fish -- or perhaps because he doesn’t have a fish -- and leave him to figure out from himself how fish are obtained.
Obviously I’m oversimplifying things. Ethnomathematicians apparently do believe that balkanizing math is a good way of getting math principles across. It’s not clear though, whether they believe that members of each ethnic group learn math best when exposed to practices from the continent of their ancestors or whether they feel that any reference to the Third World in the classroom just makes nonwhite youths feel mathematically empowered: Here’s a professor in Manitoba who points out that “the three fastest growing languages in Canada according to the census were: Chinese, Spanish, and Punjabi--reflecting immigration from Hong Kong, Latin America, Pakistan, and India” and that “in Winnipeg, the most prominent non-official languages were German, Ukranian, and Tagalog.” So through which culture does this professor teach math? Why, Aztec culture, naturally. That ought to make those Tagalog-speaking Filipinos feel much better about algebra than stinky old Western math does.
The Times quotes a critic of ethnomathematics, a math professor named David Klein, “a self-described liberal who insists on separating his academic critique from any connection to a conservative political agenda.”
''The practical effect,'' Klein says, ''has been watered-down math books that overemphasize inductive reasoning (like continuing visual patterns), because this is supposed to be good for women and minorities, and de-emphasizing deductive reasoning and mathematical proofs, which is the heart of mathematics, because that supposedly favors white males.
''But mathematics is a worldwide monoculture. Look at the chalkboards in math departments at universities all around the world -- in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America. You will see the same symbols everywhere you go on this planet, except perhaps in colleges of education where fads reign supreme.'' Klein says he does spend some class time discussing the math of Mayans, Egyptians and other early civilizations. ''But ancient techniques and early discoveries in math will not take students very far who want to do something in the modern world with mathematics,'' he says.
My kind of guy.
It seems to me that ethnomathematicians are romanticizing the “primitive,” embracing the grooviness of nonwhites from distant lands and ancient cultures much the way New Agers embrace Native American or Asian practices in diluted form. And it also seems that ethnomath proceeds from some of the same principles as The Bell Curve and other eugenicist twaddle: that nonwhites require remedial education for reasons of race, and that only nonwhites and poor people ever struggle in school (I’d like to introduce some ethnomathematicians to the many literate, overeducated white people I know who hated math in school and still get the shakes at the prospect of balancing a checkbook). In addition, the idea that, generation after generation, descendants of non-Western cultures remain essentially the same as their ancestors is disturbingly similar to the arguments advanced by anti-immigration racists.
Bash the First World for what it does wrong. Don’t bash it for math. And don’t feed nonwhite kids murky noble-savage idealizations of the Other while failing to see to it that the pipes are fixed when their classrooms have leaks.
(Editor’s note: Many links in this post came from this site. The site’s address appeared in the print version of the Times article, but not in the online version. I guess the Times is still having trouble figuring out how this World Wide Whozywhatsy works.)