It is sometimes argued that decolonisation is not necessary in the context of university mathematics. Isn’t mathematics a universal language? How can something universal possibly need to become more inclusive?
In truth, though, we need only look at the bitter feud between Newton and Leibniz (and their supporters) over who first developed calculus, to see that mathematics is not a subject that exists independently of debates over influence and focus. When two differing conceptions of the same idea, or two different methods aimed at achieving the same result, develop separately, which one will win out? And are we absolutely sure the winner will always be, in some sense, the “best” one? What does “best” even mean in this context?
Mathematics and culture are not always easily disentangled. An entire discipline exists that studies the link between the two. To take an extremely simple example, the power of ten represented by the word “billion” differs from country to country. For decades the British definition differed from the American definition, but following the Second World War, the original British definition (10^12) found itself more and more replaced by the American definition (10^9, taken from the numbers definition in French), until eventually the American version won out. Does this shift in language relate in any way to the changes in relative global influence of the UK and the US following World War 2? It’s at least worth considering the question.
It might then be inaccurate to suggest mathematics is a universal language, so much as different cultural approaches to mathematics are always translatable from one form into another. But then that is true of all languages! The question of whether we have allowed western mathematicians to dominate in our discipline is no less relevant than whether we have allowed western authors to dominate the field of literature. It may even be more important, if only because mathematics is rather more central to the advancement of science than is literature.
Decolonising the mathematical curriculum, then, means considering the cultural origins of the mathematical concepts, focusses, and notation we most commonly use, along with the goals we cite as justification for creating mathematics as a job, rather than a hobby. It involves ensuring the global project to expand our understanding of mathematics genuinely is global, and frankly assessing the discipline’s failures – past and present – to work toward that aim.
So how can we do this? I include some suggestions and resources below.