Racism in the Curriculum Isn't Limited to History – It Affects Math, TooRoundup
tags: curriculum, racism, culture wars, mathematics, teaching history
Theodore Kim is an associate professor of computer science at Yale University and a Public Voices fellow with The Op-Ed Project.
Virginia’s 2021 gubernatorial race revealed that the education wars will play a major role in politics for the foreseeable future. Debates over how history gets taught in schools and universities are increasingly framed in relation to “critical race theory,” a term that has been used to mean almost anything. However, the conversations are difficult even in subjects such as math, which is perceived, incorrectly, as a neutral space outside the reach of structural racism and national histories.
These tensions become clear when teaching RSA encryption, the algorithm that runs on your phone to prevent hackers from stealing your credit card number. Learning about RSA encryption is usually preceded by lessons on Euclid’s Algorithm and the Chinese Remainder Theorem (which, ironically, shares an acronym with critical race theory, CRT).
The juxtaposition is jarring: The Greek scholar Euclid (300 B.C.) gets his name attached to an algorithm, while a Chinese scholar’s identity is erased, his work reduced to his nationality. This dichotomy reveals the racial assumptions hidden in seemingly apolitical subjects and how the biases of the past are embedded in the present.
The CRT dates to at least A.D. 300, and the Chinese mathematician Sun Tzu is widely credited with popularizing it. (Centuries before, a different Sun Tzu wrote “The Art of War.”) In China, the theorem is still often called Sun Tzu’s Theorem. However, as this scholarship existed outside the European tradition, it was not significantly visible in the West until the 20th century.
In 1929, a White mathematician at the University of Chicago named L.E. Dickson popularized the CRT in the English-speaking world and simultaneously stripped away Sun Tzu’s name. Dickson discovered Sun Tzu’s work through the writings of Alexander Wylie, a British missionary who published translations of various Chinese texts in 1852. Dickson included Sun Tzu’s name directly in his writings but then immediately referred to the work as the “Chinese problem of remainders” and, later on, the “Chinese remainder theorem.” This name was then disseminated throughout the English-speaking world.
Why did Dickson remove Sun Tzu’s name from the theorem? We can’t know what was in his heart, but we know that Dickson made the choice amid a surge of anti-Asian violence in the United States stretching back to the late-19th century. For example, in Rock Springs, Wyo., in 1885, a White mob torched the local Chinatown and killed 28 Chinese immigrants. Two years later, in the Snake River Massacre, the mutilated bodies of 34 Chinese miners were found floating down a river in Oregon, butchered by White miners upstream. Paralleling lynch mobs in the South, no one was ever brought to justice for these acts of mass murder.
Decades of legislation aiming to cut off Asian immigration accompanied this violence. The Page Act of 1875 deemed Chinese women “lewd and immoral” and barred them from immigrating to the United States. Congress broadened this prohibition to all Chinese workers in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which remains the sole instance in U.S. history in which a lone nationality was overtly singled out for exclusion.
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