Decolonisation in Mathematics
The School of Mathematics is committed to 'decolonising the curriculum', the process of undoing the effects of colonisation and rethinking mathematics that unfairly maintain a European-centred mindset.
It is commonly believed that, as a subject primarily focused on processes and patterns, mathematics is separate from the history of people and the biases of humans have very little relevance. The School of Mathematics recognises this as untrue, because the study of mathematics was conceived by people and so cannot be exempt from the complex history of those who developed it.
The ways in which modern mathematicians, and the mathematicians who came before them, understand the world will have been rooted in cultural mindsets that regarded a Western - or colonial - mindset as the unquestioned authority on mathematical knowledge. But this is not the case, and it is important to recognise contributions to the field that have previously been overlooked or deliberately erased.
Decolonising is not about deleting knowledge or histories that have been developed in the West or colonial nations; rather it is to situate the histories and knowledges that do not originate from the West in the context of imperialism, colonialism and power and to consider why these have been marginalised and decentred.
What does decolonisation mean in mathematics?
To begin to understand the depth of colonisation in mathematics, the School recommends students and staff consider the biographies of every mathematician mentioned in the theorems and conjectures taught in the curriculum. In doing so, you will find the majority of names will be white men from Europe.
Throughout history, the contributions to mathematics from cultures that were not white or European has been diminished or ignored completely. Most of the work discussed in mathematical curricula is named only after Europeans when the reality is that mathematics is an ancient subject, with a huge, deep history from all over the world.
Some examples of contributions which have been forgotten are listed below, with evidence in the further reading section.
- Fibonacci's sequence (i.e. 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, ...) was discovered in Africa long before the Italian wrote it down, in the form of Ghanaian textile cloth and Egyptian temple design. (1)
- It is long believed calculus was discovered by Leibniz and Newton, however there is evidence of Indians having discovered the subject 300 years earlier in the Kerala School. (2)
- Fractals are geometric shapes which remain identical on all arbitrarily small scales, no matter how much they are zoomed in. Their discovery is commonly attributed to many European mathematicians, including Leibniz and Fatou. However, fractals have been shown to be a core component of African architecture, many years before they were discovered in Europe. (3)
What are we doing?
The University of Edinburgh has begun the process of broadening the curriculum, seeking to actively include mathematical perspectives and contributions that have previously gone under-recognised within academia, as decolonisation in mathematics is more about recognising all origins of knowledge and ensuring that mathematicians are aware of the cultural and historical contexts of their field. The aim is to increase awareness of what effects colonisation has had on the study of mathematics, and how this has impacted curriculum decisions and teaching methods. The School is offering staff resources to encourage discussion around how curriculums can be diversified and teaching can be made more accessible and inclusive, and students are being given the opportunity to learn about diverse mathematicians, details of which can be found in the Action Plan.
- "10 questions to begin decolonising maths" details some interesting questions for students and staff to ask to begin decolonising the School of Mathematics curriculum.
"The Golden Ratio and Ancient African Roots of Swiss Design" traces the history of the Golden Ratio and its emergence in cultures across the world. (1)
- "Mathematics Elsewhere: An Exploration of Ideas Across Cultures" (Marcia Ascher) discusses the contribution of many different cultures to mathematics and how diverse the subject is. The book can be accessed online using an EASE login, or from the Main Library.
- Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the 5000-year contribution Indian mathematicians have made to our understanding of the subject.
- "Welcoming students to the mathematics community: obstacles to 'belonging' ", is a paper discussing decolonising mathematics in the University sphere. It identifies areas where students may feel less welcome, or may feel like they don’t belong.
- The National Union of Students has a campaign aiming to develop understanding about decolonisation and racism, specifically in the University and education. They provide a toolkit to help decolonise universities and work to inspire change nation-wide.
- "The Development of Calculus in the Kerala School", details the contributions of Indians to calculus long before Europeans discovered the subject. (2)
- "Decolonise...Maths?", is a fascinating article discussing the contributions of many cultures and examines European importance to the field of mathematics.
- "To Decolonise Maths, Stand Up to Its False History and Bad Philosphy" explains the dubiety of many important European contributions to mathematics, and analyses whether these contributions were real, or as impactful as it's assumed.
- Ron Eglash discusses fractal design in African architecture and design, long before fractals were discovered in Europe. (3)
- "Decolonising the curriculum - how do I get started?" is a resource which details the importnce of decolonisation in mathematics, and how to begin dismantling colonial attitudes within the subject.
To read more about the initiatives and events the School of Mathematics is involved in regarding decolonisation, read our EDI Action Plan and visit our Initiatives and Events page to see how you can get involved.
Image: By Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons 2.0, accesible from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Europe_countries_map_en_2.png