Decolonising Maths education

October 24, 2014 02:30 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:26 pm IST

As Maths is compulsorily taught in schools, it sets a healthy democratic precedent to decide the nature of Maths education through a public debate which James Glover has initiated in his response (“Everything Vedic in Vedic Maths,”Oct. 15) to my article (“Nothing Vedic in Vedic Math,” Sept. 3). The claim that Maths “is ancient, hence Vedic” holds no water. How do we know it is ancient? Our actual source is a modern one: Bharati Krishna Tirtha. Tirtha never produced the relevant parishishta , even when challenged. How strange that not a single mathematician commented on these aphorisms for over 2,000 years. Such faith-based history — based solely on the word of one person — should be clearly separated from history based on evidence.

Second, if everything ancient is Vedic, what about the anatmavada of Buddhists or carvak ? Accepting the denial of atman as “Vedic” knowledge damages the core philosophy of the Upanishads. Thus, stretching the meaning of the word “Vedic” just to save Tirtha’s story has disastrous implications for Hinduism.

Besides, why is that label “Vedic” important? Is Vedic Maths to be taught because of the label or because of its practical value? If the latter, the misleading label “Vedic” should be dropped. If the former, or both, that would be a religious imposition.

A recent petition signed by 50 people and addressed to top educational administrators asks Maths to be taught in school only for its practical uses and in a religiously neutral way. Decisions on such issues should not be taken by some people designated “experts.” They must declare any conflict of interests, and publicly explain the reasons for their decisions.

A deadly cocktail A cocktail of practical value and religious propaganda can have obnoxious consequences. Post-colonisation, Maths teaching in India blindly apes Western practices — a pity because most of that school Maths actually originated in India. Europeans also imported it for its practical value. However, contrary to popular belief, the understanding of Maths is not universal. Indian ganita accepted empirical proofs. This differed from the European understanding of Maths as metaphysics. Hence, over centuries, the West adapted the imported Indian Maths to fit their metaphysics, which was linked to church theology. During colonisation, the West exported back this religiously coated mathematics, which is now taught globally.

" Maths was considered especially suited to arouse the eternal soul since it was believed that it contains eternal truths. "

Maths was considered especially suited to arouse the eternal soul since it was believed that it contains eternal truths. The belief in eternal truths in turn led to the Western belief that Maths is “perfect.” It was further thought that this perfection could be achieved only through metaphysics and not empirically. Today, Maths is 100 per cent metaphysics.

Imperfect Maths The belief that Maths is perfect is certainly not universal. Indian tradition accepted Maths as non-eternal and imperfect. Most practical applications of Maths today, such as sending a spacecraft to Mars, are done using computers which do Maths “imperfectly.”

Teaching Western metaphysics spreads other biases. All systems of Indian philosophy, without any exception, accept the pratyaksa, or empirically manifest, as the first means of proof. This also applies to ganita . Science and engineering too prefer empirical proofs to metaphysics. So if Maths is done for its practical applications, it is better to accept empirical proofs in the subject. But present-day Maths teaches such proofs, hence all Indian philosophy, is “inferior.”

Does any of this make a difference to 2+2=4? Yes. Why is 2+2=4? Putting together two pairs of apples to show four apples is erroneous on formalism which disallows reference to the empirical. Formalism posits that 2+2=4 can be “rigorously” deduced only metaphysically from, say, Peano’s axioms. Most people don’t know how to do that or even what Peano’s axioms are. Thus, most Western educated never even properly learn 2+2=4. Since they are taught alongside that all other systems are inferior, they are compelled to rely blindly on Western authority for everything. This is by design. To put an end to this mental enslavement through indoctrination, education must be decolonised. The new government ought to focus on that.

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