A digression: ‘decolonising mathematics’ in South Africa?

The idea that academic curricula in South Africa need to be ‘decolonised’ is one that has emerged from both the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) and Fees Must Fall (FMF) movements. Previously I argued that there is some merit to the concerns raised about economics. (And I still intend to write my final blog post on how I think South African economics should be taught). In doing so, however, I also noted that:

Students are driven by a well-founded instinct that something is wrong, but they struggle to decipher what the causes are. In my view this is entirely understandable given that undergraduates cannot be expected to have a uniformly better understanding of the discipline than those teaching them! But muddling of issues is often used by those favouring the status quo to deflect otherwise legitimate criticism.

It would seem, unfortunately, that in recent times students calling for ‘decolonised curricula’ and their ‘radical academic’ supporters appear to not be learning any lessons in this regard. The recent #sciencemustfall Twitter debate is an extreme case that illustrates some useful points.

The issue began with a video of a meeting at the University of Cape Town where a black student called for ‘science to be decolonised’, going to the extent of stating that: “science as a whole is a product of Western modernity and should be scratched off”. Just in case one might want to wilfully misunderstand her in order to provide some kind of defense, she states that: “decolonising the science would mean doing away with it entirely and starting all over again”.

Coincidentally, on the same the day an article was published on The Conversation with the headline “Mathematics can be decolonised”. This was then used by some to suggest that the student in question had a point. I disagree: for the ‘decolonisation of curricula’ movement to have intellectual credibility, it needs to clearly delineate different interpretations of ‘decolonisation’ and make sober assessments of which aspects are (most) relevant to different disciplines.

A closer look at the arguments in the Conversation piece reveal that what the author is referring to is making the content more accessible – not changing or questioning it in any way. She states explicitly that:

it’s not obvious how mathematics can be decolonised at the level of content. This means that those within the discipline must consider other aspects: curriculum processes, such as critical thinking and problem solving; pedagogy – how the subject is taught and, as a number of people have argued, addressing the issue of identity.

This emphasises a critical point: to pretend, as some have done, that proposals to make content more accessible is the same as “starting from scratch” (i.e. critiquing or removing content) is disingenuous and dangerous. Making content more socially or culturally accessible may be a small part of ‘decolonisation’, but many such calls have something far more substantive – or, in this case, extreme – in mind.

There are three further points I want to make:
1. Calling for mathematical or scientific disciplines to reflect ‘African contributions’ without knowing what those contributions are (or indeed if they exist) is fundamentally misguided
2. Excusing absurd claims like those made in the video is patronising to black students and often self-serving (for self-styled ‘radicals’)
3. I feel sorry for the student in the video: she has been let down by the education system, her peers and the ‘radical academics’ who might have corrected her before she publicly humiliated herself.

Why do I make the strong claim that insisting on ‘decolonising mathematics’ and ‘decolonising science’ is misguided and may be racist? The reason is that this argument assumes that if Africans had not made contributions then they could not lay claim to that knowledge as a product of humanity. That in turn implies that the relative quantity of contributions by different nationalities and races to academic disciplines reflects something about intrinsic capacity of those groups. I believe that is essentially racist. My own view, from the history of mathematics I know, is that the differing extent of contributions to mathematics and sciences by different groups is to do with what we could loosely call ‘historical accidents’ in development (in earlier historical periods) as well as subjugation (including colonialism) in later periods. (To the extent that black people were deliberately denied access to education and knowledge they were deprived of opportunities to make contributions to many academic disciplines. There are of course some remarkable stories, such as Ramanujan, of triumphing over related odds but these are the exception that prove the rule.)

In some areas, like the humanities and social sciences, I do believe there is a strong case that content must be changed, critiqued and contextualised. But it is simply misguided to assume that one can call for decolonisation of mathematics in the same way as decolonisation of anthropology. It is also misguided to assume that you understand what is required and possible in a discipline you are not an expert in (or haven’t even studied at an academic level). Doing that leads, eventually, to the kinds of cringeworthy statements in the video. It is also easy to make progressive-sounding noises about such issues, like suggesting that using fractal-like patterns is the same as having a mathematical theory of fractals. But I would argue that is again misguided for the same reason stated above, and furthermore that it seems rather patronising to Africans: ‘you had fractal patterns in designing stuff so that’s kinda like us Westerners developing set theory’.

The second point is that it is patronising to black students to engage in complicated exculpations of ignorant remarks. When I was an undergraduate I had embarrassingly ill-informed views about a number of things. It was briefly humiliating when those blind-spots were exposed, but fortunately they were (usually not in public) and I was able to broaden and deepen my intellectual abilities. Students who constantly have their ignorance, or excessively definitive claims, excused on the basis of ‘being victims of the system’, ‘whiteness’ or any other currently popular exculpation, are in fact being patronised and denied the criticism that leads to intellectual development

Finally, and relatedly, I actually feel very sorry for the student in question. She has been allowed and encouraged to pursue what could be a defensible train of thought to a humiliatingly absurd extreme because of the ignorance and cowardice of her peers – and some academics who claim to support her worldview. Unlike those academics, she will forever be on YouTube and may never quite shake being an object of derision by others who are less sympathetic or understanding.

I should note that I studied history of mathematics at UCT and distinctly recall my lecturer discussing the Middle Eastern, Indian and Chinese origins of various critical concepts. I particularly recall the story of how the Babylonians ‘invented’/’discovered’ zero. Ironically, the lecturer of that course – Ken Hughes – has subsequently (and somewhat deservedly) ended-up on the wrong side of transformation debates at UCT. But credit should be given where it is due.

Unfortunately, some critics will stick to simplistic claims about lack of transformation and assertions of what needs to be done no matter the evidence provided to the contrary. The rest of us, however, need to find a more balanced and nuanced understanding of when and whether the ‘decolonisation’ narrative has relevance. Otherwise we’ll be responsible for the humiliation of future generations of students who deserve a lot better.

Author: peripheralecon

Public sector economist, extra-mural academic

5 thoughts on “A digression: ‘decolonising mathematics’ in South Africa?”

  1. I’ve received some useful criticism on Twitter about my claim that insistence on the necessity of finding contributions by different racial groups to academic disciplines to ‘decolonise’ them is implicitly racist. Specifically, the philosopher Robert Kowalenko has argued that (https://twitter.com/robkowa/status/787227962965893120 and https://twitter.com/robkowa/status/787228330256900096):
    “1 Your argument:
    1.to say (a)“to lay claim to knowledge X you must have made contributions to X” is racist, bc

    2. (a) implies that (b) quantity of contributions to X by group reflects intrinsic capacity of group

    a does not imply b”

    In this formulation, I agree: there is a missing step in my reasoning. In theory, someone could hold the view that black Africans have little claim to mathematical knowledge for reasons other than racism.

    In practice, however, I would argue that the question is: on what other basis would one deny people from a racial, national or cultural group equal claim to knowledge that is (most thinkers agree) unrelated to race, nationality or culture? [NB: as in the article, I’m referring specifically to ‘pure’ mathematical theory here as a useful extreme case; most other disciplines are not unrelated to these factors, which is where the decolonisation argument gains more traction. However, I think the argument used by the student in the video about Newton would also be covered here.]

    I think it is fair to assume that a statement like, “Black people have no claim to mathematics because they have made few historical contributions” is racist until alternative explanation is provided. I can’t think of any defensible justification either way. But the key point I make in the article is: those who argue that black students can only access mathematics if we show that black people made major historical contributions are making a claim that is comparable to stating that black students cannot access mathematics if these historical contributions do not exist. And that is fundamentally misguided, at best.

  2. A useful contribution to the discussion. I do believe that African contributions to mathematics can and should (and sometimes are) included in the curriculum in systematic ways. These have been documented. However they do not account for all of mathematics, which, as a human construction belongs to all of us, no matter who made contributions in the past. And going forward, we want more and diverse contributors to developing the discipline.

    1. Maths and science are not human constructions. They apply throughout the universe. They are independent of their human (or aliens in another galaxy) discoverers.

  3. Hi Sean,
    Good work!
    Is a stand alone pdf of your SOTL paper available? I could print and scan but a pdf would be better, if possible? I want to share the paper with my Honours students as an example of a theoretical paper.

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