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Decolonising the Curriculum through the History of Mathematics

Updated Friday, 13 November 2020

As part of Black History Month, June Barrow-Green and Brigitte Stenhouse gave a presentation in which they explored how historical sources can be used to decolonise the mathematics curriculum.


Much of the mathematics taught at undergraduate level is named for, or attributed to, male European mathematicians of the nineteenth century. This helps to reinforce the mistaken notion that mathematics is a white male preserve. Since there is little room in Open University mathematics teaching to include the broader and more nuanced historical material necessary to show the rich diversity of contributions to mathematical development, another way must be sought. 

Our proposal is to create an open access online resource containing original and secondary source material which exemplifies the diversity of mathematical development. The resource would be available via OpenLearn to mathematics students and mathematics teachers everywhere.

We envisage that the resource will initially comprise of c.100 extracts from different types of texts (papyri, clay tablets, manuscripts, letters, journals, books, images, etc.), in translation where necessary, each accompanied by a short commentary and hints of where to go for further information. The material would be searchable in different ways: gender, topic (algebra, calculus, statistics, etc.), culture (African, American, etc.), period (Ancient, Middle Ages, etc.). It will also contain maps from which it would be possible to see immediately where and when, for example, a mathematical idea developed and/or its route of transmission. It will also contain ideas for assessment.  

In our presentation we included two examples that demonstrate the sort of material that could be contained in the resource, and we showed how it could be used to broaden students’ perception of mathematics and mathematical practice. The first related to Thomas Fuller, an African slave with exceptional calculating abilities. Since Fuller produced no written mathematics, the relevant primary sources are limited to published reports about Fuller. These sources, as well as later secondary sources, can be used to learn about Fuller as well as raise questions about mathematical cultures.

This is a photograph of Katherine Johnson Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who worked for NASA

In the second example, we consider prosopography as a way to view communities of mathematicians whose presence in archives and historical records are more obscure. Using the example of the West Computing Group at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in the USA, expertly treated by Margot Lee Shetterley in her book Hidden Figures, we showcased the benefits to mathematics students of engaging with historical materials. Students witness the huge amount of unseen labour that goes into developing, refining, and adapting mathematical concepts before they become sanitised in textbooks; they witness mathematical practitioners with whom they can identify and perhaps take as role models; they are exposed to the many places outside of universities where mathematics was and is developed; and they will gain a greater understanding of the cultural influences which have affected who is granted access to mathematical knowledge, and the types of knowledge that is valued. This is especially pertinent when you consider that our undergraduates are the future researchers, funding body decision-makers, hiring committee members, teachers and more; an awareness amongst students of the historical and persistent barriers to mathematical studies is vital if we are to improve diversity in mathematical sciences more broadly.


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