The latest issue of *Nature*, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, has a long (4-page) feature about the “decolonization” of mathematics. As we’ve learned to expect from this kind of article, it points out gender and ethnic inequities among mathematicians, ascribes them to structural racism existing today, and seen as ubiquitous in math, and and then proposes untested ways to achieve equity in math (proportional representation of groups) by infusing the teaching of math with aspects of local culture.

The problem with this paper, like similar “decolonization” screeds, is that while it certainly means well (I agree that everyone should have the chance to learn math), and is sensitive to differences among cultures, it gives no evidence that “decolonizing” mathematics (that is, removing its “whiteness” and “Westernness”, and using as math subjects features of the local culture) actually *works. *It’s a gift package of suggestions and assertions wrapped around, well, nothing. This doesn’t meant that the suggestions are not worthwhile, but there’s nothing to be gained by blaming inequities, which could be due to a number of factors, to existing bigotry and racism in math, for which it offers no evidence. More important, the “course” they chart has to be shown to actually lead to more understanding than alternatives.

Here’s where blame is affixed. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that it adheres to white men.

Maths is built on a modern history of elevating the achievements of one group of people: white men. “Theorems or techniques have names associated to them and most of the time, those names are of nineteenth-century French or German men,” such as Georg Cantor, Henri Poincaré and Carl Friedrich Gauss, all of whom were white, says John Parker, head of the mathematical sciences department at Durham University, UK. This means that the accomplishments of people of other genders and races have often been pushed aside, preventing maths from being a level playing field. It has also squelched wider access to rich mathematical ideas developed by people of different backgrounds — such as Chike Obi, James Ezeilo and Adegoke Olubummo, a trio credited by the website Mathematicians of the African Diaspora with having pioneered modern maths research in Nigeria. Another example is Mary Golda Ross, a Cherokee mathematician and engineer who was a founding member of ‘Skunk Works’, a secretive division of the US aerospace manufacturer Lockheed. There, she developed early designs for space travel and satellites, among other things.

Where is the evidence that high quality and non-white mathematicians, of which until recently there were very few, are now being pushed aside by racism? I don’t doubt that there was discrimination in the past against women and minorities, but even then I keep thinking of the Indian Srinivasa Ramanujan, an immensely talented autodidact from Tamil Nadu who in 1913 sent a bunch of his theorems and proofs to G. H. Hardy at Cambridge, who instantly recognized the man’s talent and arranged for him to study at Cambridge. I can’t imagine anyone more “minoritized” in the UK than Ramanujan, dark of skin, poor, and humble of origin. And yet people helped him, and he’s still regarded as a giant in the field. Would people push him aside today—or anyone like him? I doubt it, just as I doubt that mathematics is presently rife with structural racism—that the playing field is still “far from level”. If “level” means “equal opportunity”, then I’d say we’re pretty close. If it means “equal outcoms”, I’d say, yes, it’s not level. But that’s not what a tilted playing field means: it means that right now there is not equal opportunity. Yes, the pipeline needs to fill up after a past of sexism and bigotry, but the article gives evidence for “structural bias” or “system bias” at the pipeline’s distal end.

Here’s what the advocates of decolonization advocate to replace the kind of math teaching we have today:

Edward Doolittle, a mathematician at First Nations University of Canada in Regina, contrasts Indigenous mathematics with the mainstream, global way of teaching maths, in which instructors essentially present the same content regardless of where they’re teaching.

Doolittle, who’s also a Mohawk person from Six Nations in southern Ontario, says that calculus courses are structured so similarly that he could teach the subject “anywhere the students speak English”, and even take over teaching a course midstream.

By contrast, he says that Indigenous mathematics involves getting inside a culture and examining the mathematical thinking in it. He draws a further distinction between Indigenous mathematics and the practice of what he calls “indigenizing mathematics”, which, he says, involves searching for cultural examples to use in courses taught in the global version of mathematics.

Indigenizing mathematics tweaks the curriculum when it isn’t feasible to fully immerse students in ideas from an Indigenous culture, Doolittle says. “It’s very hard, if not impossible, to break out of” the global mathematics system, he notes. By indigenizing mathematics, instructors can stay within the parameters of what they’re required to cover while broadening the cultural scope of their curriculum.

Using that approach, “we have respected the knowledge of Indigenous people and are furthering our ties with Indigenous people” while still teaching students core topics, he says. For example, when teaching statistics courses, Doolittle has discussed a simplified version of the Peach Stone Game, which is based on making wagers and is played in his community. “You can analyse this in terms of a binomial probability distribution,” or the chances of two outcomes over time, he says.

“I would like to encourage many of my colleagues to engage in indigenization efforts, and hopefully to turn up interesting examples from their local area,” Doolittle says.

As for how to “indigenize” math, the article gives a couple of examples beyond the Peach Stone Game: teaching about Polynesian navigation to Hawaiians in Hawaii and using aspects of local culture to teach math in five African countries (“the next Einstein will be African” is the motto of this five-nation consortium, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, or AIMS). And that’s about it. There is a lot of noise, but, as of yet, little to show that this kind of training produces results better than “non-indigenous” training. If it does work, more power to them. So far, most of the “indigenizing” appears to be mainly trying to increase the *diversity* of people going into math. That’s great, too, but it’s not a revolution in *teaching* math.

And even some of these endeavors involve bringing in mathematicians who aren’t indigenous. Here’s what AIMS does:

Faculty members at the centres are hired from African countries, often through partnerships with local universities. AIMS also hosts visiting lecturers from outside Africa who teach courses that range from a few weeks to two months in length. Bringing in outside researchers exposes students to top talent while they continue to expand their roots in Africa’s mathematical communities.

But isn’t it counterproductive to bring in “top talent”, probably white people, who undoubtedly teach math in decidedly non-Indigenous ways?

It’s clear that while I have no strong beef against using local culture or examples to teach math—or any form of science—this will go only so far (what happens when you get to really high-level math?), and if you’re going to do something like this, it’s better to start by showing in pilot projects that it really works. Blaming whiteness or the West on holding down math education in places like Africa (where whites are actually a minority), is no longer tenable, and even counterproductive.

But here’s the part I most object to. Durham University in the UK is itself mounting a decolonization effort that involves Ric Crossman, a statistician, and John Parker, head of Durham’s maths department. Here’s their philosophy of education:

Durham’s senior mathematicians felt that their curriculum-reform process had to be led by the students, because otherwise “we’re in the awful situation of deciding for ourselves what’s best for them”, Crossman says. That, Parker adds, would be at odds with the concept of decolonization, because colonization “was some group of people thinking they knew best for some other group of people”.

What an AWFUL situation! It’s certainly feasible for some students to tell you the best ways they can absorb mathematics, but this will certainly differ among students, and not every student knows. But to put the curriculum and all the teaching methods in the hands of the students, ignoring the experience of teachers who have spent years finding out which forms of pedagogy work in general, is a recipe for disaster. It’s simply invidious to denigrate the expertise of teachers by comparing it to “colonizers.” But such are the rhetorical tactics that progressives have learned to use.

h/t: Carl