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.

The Undergraduate Economics Curriculum at the University of Cape Town: Part II

At the end of Part I of this comment on the UCT economics curriculum, I identified two further issues for immediate consideration: the nature of textbooks, and problems arising from academic incentives. The textbook issue also raises the important role of history of economic thought and economic history courses.

Continue reading “The Undergraduate Economics Curriculum at the University of Cape Town: Part II”

The economics curriculum at UCT: Part I

It would be no exaggeration to say that I have taken a critical interest in UCT’s economics curriculum for over fifteen years, and some of the associated dissatisfaction has shaped my career and approach to the discipline as a whole. As an undergraduate majoring in economics I was bored stiff for the first two years by being taught how to regurgitate graphs and solve equations from American textbooks. I seriously thought of quitting – this was not what I had signed-up for. There were some useful ideas about the functioning of markets and individual behaviour, but they were so obviously crude, decontextualised and evidently infused with free-market, anti-poor (pro-rich) ideology that as a student it was not possible to separate what was useful from what was irrelevant, implausible or ideological.

For example, minimum wages were stated as definitively reducing employment (with no reference to possible effects on effort or aggregate demand), but higher taxes on the rich were stated as negatively affecting economic activity (without any reference to benefits from public expenditure or reduced inequality).

Economist readers might want to note that this was 10 years after publication of Akerlof and Yellen’s paper on efficiency wages. It was 5 years after publication of Card and Krueger’s landmark book on minimum wages, challenging the ‘conventional wisdom’ on the minimum wage in economics with empirical evidence. I had to find that book in the library on my own to get an alternative view. Scanning library shelves also led me to Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, which introduces the notion of conspicuous consumption, and JK Galbraith’s History of Economic Thought.

Our lecturers did little to assist: they were mostly graduate students, rushing to get through material that they did not have the incentive, inclination, or intellectual foundations, to critically evaluate or present differently. Only in the third year electives did I finally find a reasonable amount of intellectual stimulation, evidence of alternative views and explicit reference to the South African context.

For this reason, I am sympathetic to the recent criticism of UCT’s curriculum by Ihsaan Bassier. He notes, among other things, that:

“I find myself at the end of my undergraduate degree without the tools to interrogate the economic situation surrounding me”.

“Critical economic thinking is simply not taught during an economics undergraduate degree. The department attempts to push mathematical concepts, but only succeeds in promoting rote learning, characteristic of a production centre for ideology.”

Such concerns can be located in broader, international student movements to change the undergraduate curriculum. In general, I support those movements as well. However, they have a tendency of conflating a number of important issues: ideology, academic incentives, bureaucratic obstacles, fetishisation of quantitative methods and the problematic status of economics as a ‘science’.

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. The points I make below can be applied as much at Harvard or Oxford as at UCT, because they pertain to deep problems with economics as a discipline and universities as institutions, but I will use UCT as my working example – having studied and lectured there.

Continue reading “The economics curriculum at UCT: Part I”