Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have heard about the allegations that math perpetuates “white privilege.” My own take: While there is some truth to the claim, we must be very careful about what conclusions we draw from them.
For example, part of the claim (nothing new, by the way…I heard the same argument back in the 1990s with the introduction of “multicultural mathematics”) is that names like “the Pythagorean theorem” perpetuate the idea that only white European men can do mathematics. As a historian of mathematics, I know that “the Pythagorean theorem” was a) not actually discovered by Pythagoras, and b) was independently discovered by several cultures. And it is my responsibility, as a historian, to set the record straight.
But what about my responsibility as a mathematician? The issue is this: when we teach the Pythagorean theorem as mathematicians, we don’t go out of our way to say “Pythagoras was a European white guy.” What we usually do is to draw a triangle, label some sides, and say “Behold! !” (Yes, it is a reference…I can’t help myself)
Let’s contrast this to statues of confederate generals. First, by the standard definition of treason (taking up arms against your country and losing), these folks were traitors, and a statue to Robert E. Lee is no more appropriate than a statue to Benedict Arnold or Nidal Hasan.
But legalistic issues aside, there’s a key difference. And that’s this: What image pops into your head? With “Robert E. Lee,” it’s the statue (or some other portrayal), and you know beyond a doubt that he was a European-descended white guy. In contrast, with “Pythagorean theorem,” the immediate picture is that of a right triangle.
Math transcends nationality, culture, and gender.
But let’s take that a little further. Part of the claim is that by emphasizing the importance of mathematics, we further disadvantage cultural groups that don’t, as a rule, do well in mathematics. And that critique is valid…but what conclusion should we draw from it?
Should we conclude that we need to reduce the importance of mathematics?
Or should we instead conclude that it is more important than ever to make sure that all persons, regardless of gender, nationality, culture, sexual orientation, etc., have the opportunity for success in mathematics?