Tom Slater

Why is Durham trying to ‘decolonise’ maths?

Why is Durham trying to ‘decolonise’ maths?
Durham university (photo: iStock)
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Is maths racist? That’s the question apparently troubling the department of mathematical sciences at Durham University at the moment. As the Telegraph reports, the department has put out a new guide on ‘decolonisation’, urging maths academics to ensure their teaching is ‘more inclusive’ and not dominated by a Eurocentric view on the world.

Of course, exploring the overlooked contribution of non-western thinkers to mathematics would be no bad thing. But this guide goes a fair bit further down the ‘decolonisation’ rabbit hole. It urges academics to introduce more non-white thinkers into their classes, thus presenting their race as more important than their merit or impact. And it urges academics to ‘discuss how maths can be used to aid attempts to secure equality’ – that is, to turn what should be an objective, academic subject into a form of activism.

One idea the guide floats is using non-western analogies when describing mathematical concepts: ‘To give an example from statistics, two common examples of Simpson’s paradox involve survivors of the Titanic, and enrolment in an American University, both examples from the western world. But there is also an example one can cite which is based on the representation of the under-representation of Maori in New Zealand jury pools.’

It would be tempting to read this as the work of one administrator high on virtue or something stronger. But when it comes to wokeness seeping into mathematics, Durham isn’t an isolated case. Last year, in California, a state-education panel considered various reforms aimed at rooting out ‘white supremacy culture in the mathematics classroom’. Woke educationalists even argued that ‘upholding the idea that there are always right and wrong answers’ was part of a nefarious, covert system of racial domination via long division and algebra.

‘Decolonisation’ has been a hot topic on British campuses since the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. It amounts to ridding various subjects of their alleged ‘Eurocentrism’ and championing alternative, non-western thinkers and ‘forms of knowledge’. Once a fringe academic tendency, ‘decolonisation’ activists now have the ear of our most esteemed institutions of learning. In June 2020, Oxford University announced plans to ‘decolonise’ its maths and science degrees.

Many top universities have tried to have their cake and eat it here – to indulge the ‘decolonisers’ while not becoming complete relativists. ‘The maths curriculum our students learn remains the same’, said a Durham spokesman in response to the Telegraph story. 'But we also encourage students to be more aware of the global and diverse origins of the subject, and the range of cultural settings that have shaped it. Two plus two will always equal four.'

But the Durham guide still urges staff to essentially racialise maths, to treat race as a key consideration when compiling course materials and teaching students. This politicised approach to mathematics not only undermines what should be an objective discipline, it also patronises ethnic-minority students. They are presumed to be incapable of appreciating this subject unless it is presented to them with a more ‘diverse’ face.

Elsewhere, as we saw in California last year, the attempts to introduce racial politics into maths is bred of a more clear-cut contempt for ethnic-minority people. Luckily, the state-education panel rejected the genuinely racist notion that expecting black children to get the right answer was itself racist. But across the US 'gifted and talented' programmes for high-flyers in various subjects are now on the way out, over claims that black children can’t possibly benefit from them.

These attempts to rid maths of its alleged white supremacy make two things crystal clear. First, that identity politics in education is no longer confined to the arts and humanities – even maths and the hard sciences aren’t safe from such relativism. Second, for all their talk of ‘decolonisation’, it is woke activists who think of ethnic minorities as lesser beings, incapable of mastering ‘western’ subjects unless those subjects are completely rewired beforehand.

Is maths racist? Of course not. But the woke assault on maths most definitely is.