Why Math History Matters
It’s been a decade since Netmath introduced its “Missions”, a gamified learning environment where Middle School students can learn about math history. At that time, curriculum efforts including math history were usually thumbnail size grey portraits of mathematicians, off to the margins of textbooks, clearly indicating that the history of mathematics was not central to learning mathematics. It is important to mention that almost all the mathematicians that were to be found in textbooks around that time, which was still considered progressive for math education, were white males.
The start of this decade sees a completely different landscape for math history. The emergent equity issues have facilitated and promoted ideas like culturally responsive math curriculums, creating an organic and reflexive gaze into a rich and vibrant past of mathematics–that includes all races, cultures, and civilizations of our long past.
That’s just it. Math history is our history, and our history is our stories. We need to tell these stories. A mathematical history has never had greater illuminative power than in the book Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics by George Joseph. The opening sentences speak to that inspiring energy.
The energy and appetite for embracing the history of mathematics has almost become a moral imperative in math education, and we would like to surf that big wave of obligation and enthusiasm by sharing more detailed stories about the mathematicians highlighted in our Missions. It is important to know not just more about them, but also the ongoing thematic development of mathematics they were involved in. The more we learn about our ancestors, the more we learn about what a profoundly human endeavor the creation of mathematics was.
And, continues to be…
But, that is what exploring math history does. It humanizes mathematics and gives us, especially our students, a greater sense of identity as they continue on their journey exploring mathematics. They need these stories, and the stories need them.
We are the oxygen for all these stories.
Too often mathematicians are seen as one-dimensional, having had no other interest or qualities other than finding new mathematics ideas. This is also a myth and, here, one that we would like to break.
So, in the weeks ahead, we would like to share more detailed stories about the mathematicians in our Missions. We hope to bring more color and texture to these stories, and as such, motivate you to learn more about the rich and deep history of the most important language in our universe, mathematics!