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Combining Strands of Many Colors: Episodes from Medieval Islam for the Mathematics Classroom - Reactions from Students

Randy K. Schwartz (Schoolcraft College)

In the U.S., people from non-European cultures often yearn for a public recognition that important contributions to knowledge were made in other parts of the world. This becomes evident when I ask my students to write down their reactions to the cross-cultural activities. Alice, a young woman from Beirut, proudly wrote, “Beginning with colors and threads and finishing with a combination formula is a great breakthrough in the historical past of any country.” Ahmad, a business student from Tripoli, Lebanon, decided to turn in his paper with his name written in ancient Phoenician and accompanied by 11 pages about Phoenician contributions to history, which he’d printed for me from the Internet. He went on to comment:

Arab, Indian and Chinese did not only invent some mathematical techniques, but they also invented physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, and philosophy when Europeans were still living in the dark, and the American continent wasn’t even discovered yet. Not to mention that Phoenicians (my ancestors) discovered the alphabet and spread it all over the world. Trying to internationalize the curriculum might be a good idea, since we live in a world full of hatred, bigotry and racism, and since some Americans (with all due respect) don’t know a lot about the rest of the world.

While this student went too far in belittling European achievements, I find even such strong remarks quite understandable. They represent a natural reaction to a curriculum, and a cultural mindset, that has been dismissive of the mathematics of Arab and other non-European peoples.

At the same time, these activities also have broad appeal to non-minority students born in the U.S. Some of these students simply find the cultural connections intriguing, as with one who wrote, “I thought it was very interesting because, not only did we learn different ways of doing the problems, but we also learned where these methods originated from and how they were used.” Other U.S.-origin students consciously want greater cross-cultural and cross-national understanding. Kathy, a returning student in marketing, wrote:

In this day of global hostility as well as global economics I believe it almost a mandate that all things possible be done in order to lay the foundation for not merely acceptance but rather an appreciation of cultures and people different from those with whom we are accustomed […] Gradually, I submersed myself into the worksheets and found them to be intensely interesting. I found enough culture description that I almost felt as though I could see the beautiful colors of silk threads used to make the tassels from which the problems were derived. All the while I was intrigued with the realization that these techniques originated from a region previously given little attention yet is now of great national interest.

Of course, it is too much to expect that historical and cross-cultural activities will appeal to all of the students enrolled in traditional mathematics courses. However, in my experience the number of adverse reactions has been tiny. Specifically, some students think that the activities represent “extra work” that isn’t strictly necessary in order for them to learn the mathematical skills needed to pass the course. Occasionally a student will even say, “I would rather just be told the formula to memorize, and forget about who discovered it or how it was used.” Unfortunately, such an attitude actually impairs a student’s ability to learn (as opposed to “memorize”) mathematics; in fact, it is a symptom of the narrow pragmatism that has nourished a Eurocentric bias in Western education

Randy K. Schwartz (Schoolcraft College), "Combining Strands of Many Colors: Episodes from Medieval Islam for the Mathematics Classroom - Reactions from Students," Convergence (November 2010), DOI:10.4169/loci003546