FOM: wider cultural significance: ethnomathematics

Stephen G Simpson simpson at
Tue Mar 16 14:52:50 EST 1999

John Baldwin 12 Mar 1999 08:20:52 writes:
 > I have lost my naive belief that no one could be as crazy as their
 > opponents say they are so there are probably some people espousing
 > the views Steve mentions.

Indeed there are.

I just got two books on ethnomathematics out of the library.
Unbelievably bad.  Scary.  If you think the ethnomathematicians only
want to describe the mathematical ideas of different cultures, you are
wrong.  If you think they want to overcome cultural barriers to
learning mathematics, you are wrong.  What they actually want is to
undermine mathematics as an objective science, as well as mathematics

An example is their trashing of Eleanor Orr's excellent book `Twice as
less: Black English and the performance of black students in
mathematics and science' (Norton, 1987).  Orr is a math teacher who
observed that certain students in US schools performed poorly in math
because of inadequate language skills, and suggested ways to overcome
this problem.  The ethnomathematicians responded as follows:

  The effect, if not the object, of Orr's approach is to confer
  privilege on the culture and language (SAE [standard American
  English]) of the dominant power and, thereby, to deny legitimacy to
  other culturally generated linguistic (BEV [black English
  vernacular]) and cognitive experiences.


  she makes the unsubstantiated claim that, unlike the grammar of BEV,
  ``the grammar of standard English has been shaped by what is true
  mathematically'' (p. 158).  She uses this ethnocentric, elitist
  claim to vault [sic] the supposed intrinsic superiority of the
  language of the culture of power.

Here are a few other ethnomathematical gems.  Read these carefully.

  The Navajo concept of spacetime is neither better nor worse than
  that of Western culture.  [ignoring Newton, Einstein, etc]

  All too often, even when including, for example, Chinese, Arabic,
  or Indian mathematical ideas, they are included [sic] only
  tangentially and with the Western expression as a measure or
  standard for comparison.  [ignoring Arabic numerals]

  ... as it stands, much of mathematics education depends upon
  assumptions of Western culture and carries with it Western
  values. ... Some mathematics educators ... are interested in
  cultural differences that interfere with mathematical learning in
  its fully Western sense.  Their goal is to be effective in
  overcoming these ``deficits''.  However, the majority of other
  concerned educators are interested in modifying mathematics
  education so that it can effectively *build upon* and *reinforce*
  diverse cultural traditions.

These quotations amply illustrate what the ethnomathematicians are up
to.  Clearly any concern they may have for conveying mathematical
knowledge is overshadowed by their distaste for Western culture.
-- Steve

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