Monday, October 24, 2011
Barbarians at the of Gates of Rome
Guest essay by Rodolfo F. Acuña
I have always enjoy listening in on the conversations of others whether at restaurants or on the streets. Listening to different accents and intonations reminds me that there is life beyond my bubble. I especially like listening to my office mate, Gabriel Gutiérrez, talk with his students.
The other day Gabriel was telling a student about how the teaching mathematics often stifles non-western European students. According to Gabriel, the assumption is that mathematics is neutral and a product of Western Civilization. Gabriel called to her attention to the growing body of literature on Non-Western Mathematics and how the core of our mathematical knowledge actually developed outside the United States and Europe, i.e., in Islam, China, India, Mesoamerica, Egypt, and Africa, among other places.
This reality is far removed from the belief of most westerners that the barbarians are at the gates of Rome. The truth is that much of our knowledge was transmitted from East to West. Even Greece, the citadel of Western European civilization was the recipient of mathematics, literature and art from India, Mesopotamia and points east.
Today scholars are examining mathematical systems and their relevancy to the non-western cultures and the impact on the learning of children. This knowledge is being integrated into the pedagogy and used to motivate non-Western students.
Educators are not free of biases and they typecast particular races as having or not having an aptitude for mathematics or learning. They don’t consider that these students’ ancestors contributed to the development of mathematics. They cannot get beyond the image of the barbarians at the gates of Rome.
The Olmecas and then the Mayas developed the zero in 200 BC when most of Europe was in the Stone Age in terms of mathematics; the vaunted Greeks and Roman did not yet use the zero. The number zero reached European civilization through the Arabs after eighth century due to the conquest of Spain by the Moors. The knowledge of the “barbarians” did not reach England until the middle of the twelfth century.
Advanced mathematics allowed the Olmeca and the Maya to develop sophisticated calendars and a highly advanced knowledge of the cosmos. They calculated the “Galactic Alignment,” a planetary alignment between the December solstice sun with the equator of our galaxy, the Milky Way in 2012.
Tragically, the Los Angeles Unified School District with a student population of about 700,000 students, three-quarters of whom are Latinos, ignores the Mayan counting system.
The truth be told, the hieroglyphic systems of China, Japan and Mesoamerica also had aspects that were superior to our present day phonetic alphabet, which is based on the Arabic alphabet.
Mayan hieroglyphic writing is one of the most visibly striking writing systems of the world. Its destruction stopped its evolution and we can only speculate on how it would have shaped and enriched our base of knowledge.
In the Americas most of this knowledge was destroyed because the western Christians considered the Indians barbarians, heathens, burning and pulverizing tens of thousands of books in the name of civilization. Western Europeans destroyed hundreds and thousands of literary pieces because the missionaries could not understand nor decipher their meanings. Lost was a rich body of literature. The lesson is that just because we don’t know about it or because we cannot read it, it does not mean that it did not exist.
Western European scholars have a difficult time accepting Spanish literature – first it is not in English and second many consider Spain more a part of Africa than Europe. But when the rest of Europe was in the Dark Ages, Spanish mathematics and literature flourished because of the Arabic and Moslem conquests, 711–1492.
Spain’s centers of knowledge far exceeded those of the rest of Europe. Córdoba had libraries and educational institutions that rivaled Baghdad's and cultures such as that of the Jews in Spain flourished. Non-Western Europe was the cradle of philosophy and secular thought on the continent.
This changed when Spain expelled the Jews and then the Moslems, starting in 1492. Its Western European leaders set up the Holy Office of the Inquisition, much like what is happening in Arizona, and Spain despite the huge wealth stolen from the Americas began its descent into the Dark Ages.
Just because you don’t know something, it does not mean that it does not exist.
Sadly, as we have seen American education resists knowledge that is non-Western. It is a reductive system that filters out the unknown. American exceptionalism is based on Eurocentricism. It is pathetic, dangerous and leads to political and cultural decline much the same as Europe during the Dark Ages.
American exceptionalism is today under fire. According to a recent Gallup Poll, “[b]y 52% to 32%, Americans are more likely to name China than the United States as the leading economic power in the world today….” It is important to note that we are only at the start of the decline.
To understand “the barbarians at the gates of Rome” mentality we have to look at our educational system and the purpose of American education. When I began teaching junior high social studies for the Los Angeles Public Schools, I was handed a teachers’ guide titled “Point of View.”
U.S. history was taught in the fifth, eighth and 1lth grades. The “Point of View” was the equivalent of what are today called standards. From memory, it began with a statement that the purpose of teaching U.S. history was solely to develop good citizens. My supervisors made it clear that we were there to teach Americanism.
When the California Council for the Social Studies in the late sixties tried to expand these guidelines to include critical thinking, Superintendent of Public Instruction Max Rafferty labeled the movement subversive – it was not the purpose of education to think but to memorize fairy tales.
Teaching is not about following a script. It is about motivating students. Arizona Superintendents of Public Instruction Tom Horn and John Huppenthal like Rafferty before them (and the Inquisition before that) have attempted to impose thought control and destroy the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies Program.
Learning can be motivational, it can inspire. It is not follow the scenario of James Taylor’s children song “Rose are red, violets are blue.” We should be beyond the stage where children are taught that George Washington cut down the cherry tree.
In teaching Chicana/o History, my white students often struggle with remembering the names of central characters and places. I have to remember to breakdown the words, familiarize them with what is going on around them and encourage them to attend functions such as El Día de los Muertos. Once they stop fighting the words, they do just fine with many enrolling in other Chicana/o studies classes such as Nahuatl.
When learning is made interesting it motivates. That is why learning about non-Western cultures Mathematics is catching on. Students are also fascinated with the exercise of decoding hieroglyphics.
I am concerned about the decline of the U.S. into a modern Dark Ages. I have grandchildren and I know that their children will in all probability live in this country. I have no intention of moving to China where the future seems to lie. I am concerned about the decline in our prominence in science and learning.
I lived in California when its public school system and colleges were among the top three in the nation. Today California ranks toward the bottom and quick descending.
Every time I go to Arizona I ask myself, would I want my grandchildren’s future in the hands of Joe Arpaio, Russell Pearce, Tom Horn, John Huppenthal and their supporters who speak English in monosyllabic grunts and who believe that the United States and Western Europe invented knowledge?
We have to fight for the truth. The barbarians at the gates are we. We must open our minds and take back Arizona from the thugs.
[Rodolfo Francisco Acuña, Ph.D., is an historian, professor emeritus, and one of various scholars of Chicano studies, which he teaches at California State University, Northridge. He is the author of Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, which approaches the history of the Southwestern United States that includes Mexican Americans. It has been reprinted five times since its 1972 debut (the sixth edition was published in December 2006). He has written for many publications including the Los Angeles Times, The Los Angeles Herald-Express, La Opinión, and numerous other newspapers. His work emphasizes the struggle of the Mexican American people. Acuña is also an activist and he has supported the numerous causes of the Chicano Movement.]