Mathematics and Culture

By Barta, Jim | Teaching Children Mathematics, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Mathematics and Culture


Barta, Jim, Teaching Children Mathematics


Mathematics is a vital aspect of culture. Mathematical principles may not in and of themselves be "cultural," but as soon as those principles are used by human beings, what is done becomes culturally influenced. Mathematics, therefore, is a reflection of the culture of those using it. We can use this knowledge to better understand not only the nature of mathematics itself but also ourselves and the people with whom we share the planet.

As I write this, the Middle East is again in turmoil, as people who were once neighbors are violently attacked, then counterattack. Around the world and here in the United States, we hear reports daily of how intolerance and insensitivity have led to damage, destruction, and death. Our classrooms must become places where children learn to value differences and respect variety. For hope to be alive, we must teach our children that as human beings, we do many of the same things, yet because of our individual and collective cultures, we do those things differently. The problem is not the differences but rather our learned responses to them. Early in our lives, we learn to value and devalue certain differences and the people doing them. In our mathematics classrooms, we can help our students learn that we all count, What a wonderful opportunity this situation poses, and what a weighty responsibility we bear!

This theme issue, titled "Mathematics and Culture," represents a mere fraction of the growing body of examples of how mathematics is used and expressed by people throughout the world. My hope is that the experiences shared here pique your interest to the degree that you find further investigation unavoidable. You will not have to seek out exotic cultures in distant places scattered around the globe; rather, you may begin your treasure hunt of mathematical culture with your own students and their families in your neighborhood and community.

Mathematics is a language that we all speak, and yet we do not use the same dialect. You can help your students gain a deeper understanding of how mathematics has evolved and continues to evolve and of their role in this evolution by connecting mathematics and culture in the classroom. …

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