Does Mathematics = Western Imperialism?
Is mathematics next on the chopping block to be deconstructed as a form of "Western imperialism"?
A young woman describing herself as a teacher, Ph.D. student, and "social justice change agent," recently gained notoriety for tweeting, "The idea of 2+2 equaling 4 is cultural," a product of "western imperialism/colonialism."
Yes, even mathematics, held up as the most objective and neutral of disciplines, is being reshaped by critical theory, which claims that all ideas are social constructions by groups using their power to advance their own interests.
This is not just the inflammatory language of young social justice warriors. Alan Bishop, who teaches at Cambridge University, wrote an article titled "Western Mathematics: The Secret Weapon of Cultural Imperialism," in which he deplores "the process of cultural invasion in colonised countries by western mathematics."
In Educational Studies in Mathematics, two math educators at Georgia State University write, "Dominant mathematics is a system established as right and True by the White men who have historically controlled and constructed the game." The authors call for "critical mathematics" to expose "the power dynamic between the oppressor — White, male mathematicians — and the oppressed — the marginalized Other."
Rochelle Gutiérrez, an education professor at the University of Illinois, writes that "mathematics itself operates as Whiteness. Who gets credit for doing and developing mathematics, who is capable in mathematics, and who is seen as the mathematical community is generally viewed as White." Gutiérrez charges that algebra and geometry perpetuate white privilege because the textbook version of math history is Eurocentric: "[c]urricula emphasizing terms like Pythagorean theorem and pi perpetuate a perception that mathematics was largely developed by Greeks and other Europeans."
I'm not sure which history textbooks she's talking about. We all use Arabic numerals, and in my college math class, we learned that the concept of zero as a place holder came from India; that the Babylonians gave us the 360-degree circle and the 60-minute hour; that the Babylonians, Egyptians, and Chinese all had a rough idea of the value of pi. The approximate ratio for pi even appears in the Bible: "And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about" (1 Kings 7:23).
A website for teachers, "K–12 Academics," calls for the development of "anti-racist" mathematics:
Anti-racist mathematics is part of a larger social constructivist movement in which traditional Western or scientific world views were developed within the context of a Judeo-Christian Western culture or set of cultures. Anti-racist educators suggest that these assumptions are dominant because of the abuse of political power.
Note the accusation that racism is a product of Judeo-Christian or Western culture, which became dominant not because it made any genuine contributions, but only "because of the abuse of political power."
Critical theory takes to heart Marx's dictum that the purpose of philosophy is not to interpret the world, but to change it. It calls people to become activists — to identify groups as either oppressors or oppressed, and then to liberate the oppressed from their "false consciousness" and resist their oppressors.
In critical theory, the key question is not whether an idea is true, but rather, whose interests does it serve? How does it legitimate domination? How does it perpetuate unequal power relations?
Critical theory has been dubbed "the sociopolitical turn" in mathematics education. It has roots, like Marxism itself, in the philosophy of Hegel. The German philosopher held a kind of pantheism, in which the real actor in history is not the individual, but a collective consciousness that he called the Absolute Mind or Spirit (in German, Geist). This collective consciousness expresses itself through a community's language, laws, morality, religion, and culture.
Indeed, according to Hegel, individuals do not even have original ideas of their own. Their thoughts are merely expressions of the pantheistic Mind. In his words, individuals "are all the time the unconscious tools of the World Mind at work within them."
Hegel's successors reduced the collective consciousness to a metaphor — to the Zeitgeist (literally, the spirit of the age: Zeit = time, Geist = spirit). What his followers retained, however, was the idea that individuals are "unconscious tools" of a communal consciousness. They are not producers of culture so much as products of a particular culture and community.
In our own day, this idea has led to the extreme conclusion that individuals are little more than mouthpieces for communities based on sex, race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Every community is said to have its own "truth" derived from its unique experience and perspective, which cannot be judged by anyone outside the community.
This reductionistic vision treats individuals as puppets of social forces. It says people hold convictions not because they have good reasons, but because they are men or women, heterosexual or homosexual, black or white, Asian or Hispanic, or some other group identity.
Sound familiar? This is multiculturalism. Identity politics. Political correctness.
Critical theorists argue that mathematics is just another arbitrary human creation that has been used to privilege certain groups while excluding others. Since all worldviews are regarded as equally valid, the selection of any one worldview to teach in the classroom can only be a matter of privileging the interests of one social group over others.
But critical theory contains a fatal self-contradiction. While proponents of the theory treat everyone else's beliefs as relative to social conditions, they treat their own beliefs as objective and universally true. And they are just as exclusive as anyone else in insisting that their view captures the way things really are.
Critical theory is also inherently coercive, which makes it dangerous. Because it reduces truth claims to power plays, it has no problem with using power to advance its own views. Gutiérrez warns, "Any resistance to the sociopolitical turn is a form of hegemony." In other words, no resistance, no disagreement allowed.
Many educators are buying into critical theory because it promises them a more culturally sensitive approach for helping non-white students become more confident in their mathematical abilities — certainly a worthy goal. But ultimately, critical theory will harm more than help. Because it denies the very possibility of knowledge, ironically, it undercuts the deepest motivation for education: the unrelenting search for truth.