Ethno-Math, again…

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He Brings a Little Culture to Math (login: GNXP, password: evilgenes).

Ron Eglash looks at the careful weaves in cornrow hair and sees mathematical patterns. He sees evidence of Cartesian geometry in Indian beadwork and hears a way to teach kids about ratios in syncopated Latin beats.

He is a sort of mathematical detective — he finds evidence of mathematical design in places as diverse as African villages and American cities. He then helps translate mathematical concepts embedded in the likes of hairstyles and jewelry patterns into educational software. The result is lessons like “Black Hairstyle Mathematics,” crafted with an eye toward attracting students of color to math, with a sweetener of cultural pride.

“There’s already mathematics there — in the graffiti, in cornrows, in the beadwork,” Eglash said. “And the problem is that the mathematics isn’t in a form that is the same as school math.”

Technology is just one of Eglash’s interests. He also has had a long preoccupation with social causes, including feminism and workers’ rights. He has looked to bridge these two interests — technology and activism — since he was a student in the ’70s.

Unfortunately, he often found the bridge closed.

While earning his undergraduate degree in cybernetics at UCLA, he earned cross looks with classroom questions like, “What about the political side to this?”

A decade later, while working toward his doctorate in the history of consciousness, a suggestion to apply mathematical analyses to the curriculum were sometimes shot down with: “Well, mathematics is a tool of capitalistic imperialism.”

No comment.

Update: Here is a comment by Thomas Sowell on “late talkers” and their fluency at math.

Update 2: Thomas R. DeGregori details how “ethnic science” is harming India in this article. Posted by martin.


  1. Razib

    While this can be taken to ridiculous extremes I’m not prepared to dismiss the approach out of hand. Douglas Hofstadter wrote a book which dealt in part with the mathematical complexity and insights in the work of Bach and Escher. If such connections can be found in Western art they can also be found in the art of other cultures. I am a great fan of Aboriginal art in part because I do find the almost fractal-like patterns in this work quite mathematically appealing – it suggests to me the strong intuitive mathematical sense of the Aboriginal artists.

  2. what i object to isn’t using othert cultures to teach math-it is the premise that we should cater to the fact that “kid’s can’t relate to ‘western’ math” because of their culture. if someone can’t have a passion for math based on euclid-they can’t have a passion for it.

  3. Feynman wrote a thing about overhearing two co-eds (this was the old days, and Feynman was sexist) who seemed to be having a conversation about math. It turned out one of them was explaining knitting patterns. Tiling patterns, for example in Islamic art, are another example. Complex rhythmic patterns in Indian and African music, and the math of temperament in Indian music are others. Buddhist temples in Japan used to have pretrty difficult math puzzles out for the laypeople to solve (from the scientific American).

    This doesn’t have to be about alternatives to patriarchal Eurocentric hegemonistic mathematics. Just a reminder that others than westerners learned to work formally.

    Note that the accusation that mathematics is imperialistic came from an adversary of the author being discussed, not from him.

  4. Although RPI is a good school, I for one am ready to dismiss this guy out of hand. He is in the department of science and technology studies, and as rule of thumb any department with the word science in it, isn’t a science department.

    Yeah yeah, patterns are everywhere, yeah yeah math is everywhere. Teaching 8th graders about fractals is not teaching them math. It is wasting their time and keeping them from learning arithmetic and alegebra that need to master before they learn more complicated math that will allow them to think about fractals in a way other then as pretty pictures.

  5. Plant leaves often appear in numbers corresponding to the Fibonacci sequence. So maybe being “dumb as a tree” isn’t so bad. Just because math can describe something you do doesn’t mean you can do math. Examples are always good to start with, but to do real math abstraction must occur. These abstractions are independent of culture.

    BTW: zizca: (1): The Sci.Am. article on Japanese Temple Geometry was excellent. I think it was written right before that magazine “dumbed down” the science and started including more political articles instead of the old one per issue. (2): A lot of Feynman anecdotes involve him eavesdropping. Maybe scientific curiosity and plain old nosiness are linked?

  6. zizka said :
    This doesn’t have to be about alternatives to patriarchal Eurocentric hegemonistic mathematics. Just a reminder that others than westerners learned to work formally.


    I think the problem is that there is no proof (that i’ve heard of) that the mathematical designs we ‘re talking about are undestood in a formal way by the people who implement them. I’m not aware of indigenous systems of formal math in subsaharan africa. In any case, i’ve never understood why people absolutely need culturally relevant reasons to be interested in math. What about the intrinsic beauty of the subject ? I’ve never believed in the power of “cultural bias”. Humans beings are supposed to be able to think out of their own box. Even if mathematics as we know it is largely of western origin, i don’t see why that would be an insurmontable obstacle to understanding. It’s not like Westerners are a different species whose thinking is totally foreign. (It isn’t to me anyways)

  7. ogun expresses my general view-there’s not wrong in principle with changing didactic methods to get the point across-the math is the center of attention, not the culture. this might get a few kids mildly interested in math-but those who have a passion would have cared no matter what-but it does employ some more professors in “science & tech studies,” not an evil in & of itself, but please don’t expect not to laugh & sneer.

  8. People I know involved in math occasionally grumble that math is taught in the most boring way possible. One grumble went “how often do you find yourself filling a tank with a 3″ pipe at the same time that it is being drained with a 1″ pipe”.

    My high tech cousin told me that historically engineering schools trace back to military engineers (Descartes, LaPlace, Carnot, some big names were military engineers) and that this impacted teaching methods ; “You WILL learn this, maggot!”

    A distinction might also be made between the best way to teach a low-level class for mathemeticians, and the only post-h.s.math class someone would ever take.

    You’re probably right about sub-Sharan Africa, but Hindu music theory was like Western music theory but better; they worked with the comma of Pythagoras (which keeps every piano a little out of tune, necessity) and came up with a 52-note scale (53?). Maya math also was genuinely sophisticated.

    Buddhist mathematicians went ape with exponents and succeede in decribing a universe which may be larger and certainly older than the actual universe. “If for every grain of sand in the Ganges river there is another Ganges river, and if every thousand years a bird picks up a grain of sand in one of those Ganges rivers….” You get past 10 billion years pretty quickly. But it is not an infinite number. Just a “very large number”, which really is a technical term.

    I’m happy to be the devil’s advocate here.

  9. Razib-i appended a link to this interesting article. The url works-but time of posting and authorship got messed up. Sorry dude-don’t know MT as I don’t do Western blogging- so sue me. Peace out.

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