Professors say decolonisation agenda ‘politicising’ maths degrees

New subject guidance mandates ‘narrowly skewed perspective on the history of mathematics’, leading academics claim

November 7, 2022
Two women looks at a drawing March 29, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, part of a 15th century book on mathematics to illustrate Professors say decolonisation agenda ‘politicising’
Source: Alamy

Mathematics degrees in the UK are being “unnecessarily politicised” because of expectations that lecturers decolonise the curriculum, leading academics claim.

A letter shared with Times Higher Education accuses the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) of trying to mandate a “narrowly skewed perspective on the history of mathematics” via its new subject benchmark instead of giving academics the freedom to design courses as they see fit.

The benchmark statement for mathematics, statistics and operational research (MSOR) – a document intended to establish a common understanding of what students can expect from a UK degree in this area – has grown by 50 per cent since 2019 to include sections on equality, diversity, accessibility and inclusion as well as sustainability and employment.

The proposed guidance – which has been put out for consultation – states that “the curriculum should present a multicultural and decolonised view of MSOR, informed by the student voice”.

It adds that students “should be made aware of problematic issues in the development of the MSOR content they are being taught”, listing examples such as how some pioneers of statistics supported eugenics, and mathematicians’ connections to the slave trade, racism or Nazism.

Twelve professors, eight of whom are fellows of the Royal Society, have signed the letter objecting to the changes, among them Sir John Ball, professor of mathematics at Heriot-Watt University; Philip Dawid, emeritus professor of statistics of the University of Cambridge; and Mary Rees, emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Liverpool.

Fellow signatory John Armstrong, senior lecturer in financial mathematics, probability and statistics at King’s College London, said much of what is suggested in the document “might be very reasonable”, but the group objected to the idea that it should be imposed “on absolutely every single maths course to cover these same things”.

“It seems to get rid of diversity. [We feel] it would be beneficial to have lots of different maths courses with lots of different emphases, with different people teaching with different motivations,” he said.

The letter states that the signatories “abhor racism, but one can abhor racism without subscribing to the theory of decoloniality”.

And while decolonisation might have some relevance when teaching the history of mathematics, it has little bearing on other areas of the curriculum, the letter argues.

“We struggle to imagine what it would mean to decolonise, for example, a course on the geometry of surfaces. For the most part, the concept of decolonisation is irrelevant to university mathematics, and our students know this. If we engage in obviously tokenistic anti-racism efforts we will simply be sending a signal that we do not take racism seriously,” they write.

Dr Armstrong said he felt the benchmark should be concerned only with what the basics of a mathematical curriculum might be, and he expressed the group’s concern that a centralised description of content “reduces the academic freedom of mathematicians to deliver the courses they wish to deliver”.

“These things may be very virtuous and interesting, but they are not mathematics, they are not our expertise; and mathematicians really want to talk to our students about the mathematics that fascinates them,” he added.

A QAA spokeswoman said the benchmark statement was created by an expert advisory group “to ensure the resulting documents will be of current value to the discipline communities”.

For the latest iteration of the statements, she explained, advisory groups were encouraged to “think about how they could embed inclusive practice, sustainability, the needs of disabled students and enterprise education into their curriculum”.

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Reader's comments (14)

The authors are right to sound the alarm, no matte how goo the intentions this seems like a regressive and restictive step.It used to be the role of academics to shape the curriculum of their discilines , and external bodies to provide comments, not vice versa.
One way to cover these bases without screwing up a hard science course is to cover the relevant material as part of a separate unit that deals more broadly with how your subject interfaces with society, politics etc.... The material can then be presented by people with genuine expertise and in a manner that allows proper discussion and doesn't distract from day-to-day teaching of the core science. Many students may still not like it but at least they're getting something serious and (IMO) useful. This has worked well for us. More generally - guidance from QAA is fine - but it's not going to work out well if they start dictating course content.
It's somewhat similar in any STEM subject - if you are dealing with measurable truths, decolonisation or diversification can only be peripheral as the 'truth' doesn't change based on the colour of your skin or where in the world you live.
A cartoon sent to me by an American Academic pretty much sums this up: 'Truth' I think therefore I'am, 'Post-Truth' I believe therefore I'm right! Far too many involved are now at the 'Post-Truth' stage...
The letter misrepresents what the Subject Benchmark Statements do, and QAA's role. The SBSs are written by groups of subject experts (convened on behalf of the HE sector by QAA, and openly consulted on), and they don't mandate anything at all. They're guidance, intended to be helpful to academics and departments as they design their courses, but it's up to them how much they follow it.
As little I know about university mathematics courses, I have to say I’m really struggling to imagine how or why someone would mandate the “decolonisation” or similar of every module in a maths department. I’m sure there could be plenty to talk about with a history of mathematics module, etc., but stopping in the middle of a statistics class to inform everyone that the person who formulated X mathematical concept was a racist seems to trivialise the whole endeavour. It should stand to reason that some courses just aren’t going to require a substantive rethink of their relationship to colonialism or racism in the same way that others might. The history, sociology, politics, and ethics of science are all very important areas of inquiry and teaching, but trying to jam them into science courses in such a ham-fisted way seems to be the worst outcome for everyone except box-checkers on a committee.
University isn't school. PSHE ends with compulsory education. There is no need to push wokeism where there is no relevance.
As a professional mathematician, this issue seems rather artificial and quite ludicrous in essence. I recently included a section on this matter in an essay - happy to share.
Many of the comments here evidence a near-total lack of understanding of what decolonization/decolonisation is. Decolonization would look at mathematics and historically situation the development of it as a subject, its concepts, theories and so on. It would shed light on how and when concepts developed. It would historically situate the development of, for example, algebra in ancient Babylonia, Egypt and Athens. The development of calculus would not start with Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, but would be traced back to its ancient predecessors to demonstrate how it developed over time. Decolonizing mathematics or any subject/area is also about bringing to light knowledges that have been suppressed and/or erased. This includes ways of knowing and teaching the topic in question. Here are two recent items that delve further into what it means to decolonise mathematics (search for these online): Michelle Garcia-Olp, Chris Nelson & LeRoy Saiz (2022) Decolonizing Mathematics Curriculum and Pedagogy: Indigenous Knowledge Has Always Been Mathematics Education, Educational Studies, 58:1, 1-16, DOI: 10.1080/00131946.2021.2010079 Decolonising mathematics, a case for their aestheticising by Amy O’Brien at Kings College London with Dr Nathalie Sinclair on 26 April 2022 for its 2022 Keynote Lecture, which Dr Sinclair delivered on the theme of ‘Aestheticising Mathematics Education Research'.
Looked at the article by Garcia-Olp et al. Mathematical educationalists and research mathematicians are on different pages generally, and certainly as regards this particular topic.
You're talking about the history or mathematics or the politics of mathematics; not mathematics generally. When students' mathematical aptitude are rapidly declining, there is no time for this in the curriculum. We don't need to go into detail about the Celts, Roman empire, Angles, Saxons, and Norman France when learning grammar and vocab. Capture this 'decolonisation' stuff in a different course (in the social science department) and separate it from theoretical and applied maths completely.
Is the concept of decolonisation actually defined? Could we actually agree on z definition and what is the imperative to implement decolonosation. The drivers for this come from the adherents of critical theory. This not a science, not even a pseudo science. It is either an ideology or a religion.
It can be a different course, even an entire sub-field or a major, or a track in an existing major, such as history. The courses on mathematics per se must contain only mathematics as their mandatory content. This is hard enough. The subject is neither moral nor amoral: people who apply math make it moral or amoral. A historical and political interest , arts, links to other subjects are being added by individual professors at their own free will if they wish so, or by the students as a part of a class project. These additional aspects must not be mandated, such a mandate would backfire. One can easily envision both a very helpful implementation of such a mandate, and a very harmful implementation. Who will decide the content, another group of politicized bureaucracy with full salaries and benefits ?! There is a proverb that the road to hell is lined up with good intentions: the mandate to politicize mathematics is certainly a well-intantional idea ...
To make some component of the history and philosophy of a science compulsory within a degree course is to insist its having a humanities dimension. I would favour this in general, though absolutely recognise the difficulties some suggest above when students arrive without various basic skills, and much time has to be spent simply equipping them with these. But looking at a subject in a broader and more holistic manner is surely worthwhile for learning and knowledge in general. That said, the ways in which this history affects or should affect present-day application of maths or sciences is not a straightforward question. Some pioneers of statistics may have supported eugenics, yes, as did others with no involvement with the development of statistical methods. Does this mean those statistical methods are flawed? That is not impossible, but would need to be demonstrated properly. If the methods (not just particular application of them) involved some means of subverting proper scientific method in order to arrive at certain results which would bolster the case for eugenics, then the value of the methods would certainly be seriously questionable. But only if something of this nature can be shown is there really a case to be made.