Thursday, September 13, 2012

Universal math?

I used to believe math is universal. 2 + 2 = 4, right? In reality, the answer varies depending on your culture. Boggles the mind, doesn't it?

One of the professorsI had at SFSU, wrote a paper that very logically explains why math isn't universal. She based the paper on her experience as a young teacher on a Brazilian indigenous peoples reservation, and it was an important lesson about worldview and assumptions. It was a wake up call for her, one that has very much colored her teaching. I was fortunate to take a class with her that not only explained the history of the theories Anthropology depends on, it challenged my assumptions about the way the world works. She's gone on to to further challenge safe assumptions about how we perceive the world, and currently, she is studying the link between trauma and diabetes.

For most of us, if we have two bananas, and we give 1 away, we have 1. If your worldview is based on building and maintaining relationships, that equation is very different. For the people on the Xingu reservation in Brazil, having two bananas and giving one to your friend means you have three bananas. For them, the equation is far more complex. Giving something away means you have more than what you started with. In this case, 2 +2 = 5 or more. When you loan something, you receive back more than you gave. Then, this staets a cycle of giving and recieving that ties pwople together, over time, to increase the well being of both parties. Suddenly, math doesn't make as much sense.

Math is not Universal.  It is bound by the rules of culture and it functions only in the present moment.  An equation like 2 + 2 assumes that the addition occurs immediately and ends right now.  If your math is not bound by immediacy, 2 +2 doesn't equal 4.  This schism of world views, that many scientists and "Western" teachers fail to take into account, is the part of the reason that indigenous children all over the world struggle to assimilate math and science on our terms.  It is foreign to their worldview, and they can do not, or will not, separate their cultural beliefs from something as useful as math.  By the same token, anything we assume to be universal without hard evidence, is likely to just as arrogant and flawed as the assumption that math is universal (and since nobody I know has ever met an alien, much less discussed math with them, it's a ridiculous term),  

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