Sunday, September 23, 2012

Unlearning Western Mathematics? Mind the Language First

(CRITIQUE / REACTION to Alan J. Bishop's "Western Mathematics: The Secret Weapon of Cultural Imperialism" which I previously summarized on my previous blog post.)

By the end of his essay, Bishop poses a broader question to readers: should there not be more resistance to this cultural hegemony (by Western mathematics)? The answer, though full of cynicism, is that there really is nothing much that the world can do about it. When I think about Western mathematics, I think about how deeply ingrained it is in our logic and ways of thinking that it is almost impossible to make the subconscious be consciously aware about its existence and implication in our system of thought.

The values associated with Western mathematics – rationalism, objectism, power, and control – are all reflected on how the global society thinks and moves at this present time. For instance, the emphasis on superiority of reason is present in our standardized school system where people are measured and categorized based on their capacity to reason. Also, success, assessed based largely on materialism, judges people according to what they have at a computed price or value. Moreover, the drive to achieve infinite progress for human civilization through science, mathematics, and technology enables us to think that we can control both our social and physical environment.  

Indeed, there is virtually no escape from adopting and employing Western mathematics within the world system. Resisting something that is totally ingrained within us has deep consequences. The process of unlearning mathematics is almost unthinkably impossible for a global society that has largely been shaped and influenced by it. 

However, if, in his essay, Bishop is opening the question of resistance to gather ideas on how to repel cultural hegemony brought about by the imposition of Western mathematics on indigenous communities, then his very work has already provided a possible answer for such resistance. Creating awareness is a form of resistance. The process of unlearning cultural hegemony starts not by outright rejection of Western mathematics, but by inculcating "critical mindfulness" about its presence, impact, and implication in our society, in our ways of thinking.

The problem with Western mathematics’ cultural hegemony is that it dwells deeply within our subconscious both as a seemingly harmless and “culture-free” knowledge. As such, the initial step to combat its deceptively pervasive existence is to be conscious about it and to inform the subconscious about its effect to our ways of thinking. Teaching ethno-mathematics in schools, for instance, helps activate our remembrance of the indigenous concepts lost during the imposition and domination of colonial mathematics. As a mathematico-anthropological subject, ethno-mathematics can reconstruct cultural memories about our past logic and ways of thinking. It does not have to entirely push Western mathematics aside, but only to accommodate diverse mathematical methods from all over the world and gain appreciation of our rich cultural knowledge. 

While accommodating ethno-mathematics in the already well-established system of Western mathematics, it is also strategic to consider teaching Western mathematics using the indigenous language to contextualize the abstract concepts and learnings for students. One of the perils of teaching mathematics in colonial language is that it alienates learners from understanding abstract ideas being introduced in mathematical problems. The language itself splits the consciousness of learners who are trying to grasp analytical and situational concepts in mathematics that are contextually foreign and oftentimes irrelevant to their lives.

With this, I am talking about my bitter love affair with mathematics mainly from grade school up to high school. English, my third language, is the medium of instruction in textbooks and classroom instruction.  Specifically, my problems were comprehension and analysis of lengthy word problems, some of which are contextualized based on foreign situations. This process of linguistically filtering thoughts for a student is unimaginably agonizing because one has to overcome the barriers of language in order to comprehend and, in the process, become a “rational” being. 

In my case, I was only fortunate to have met a teacher who defied teaching instructions and never imposed English and Tagalog in teaching us mathematics. Instead, my mentor encouraged everyone to speak Bisaya, my native tongue, in order to clarify our thoughts and understand mathematical methods properly. Eventually, her technique worked. Although I still dreaded math subjects in university, I passed both calculus and statistics with satisfying marks. It would never have been possible without the support of a mentor who believed that understanding lies deeply in language and critical examination of what is being imposed on us.

Bishop, Alan J. 'Western Mathematics: The Secret Weapon of Cultural Imperialism'. Race and Class 32(2), 1990 
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