A historical analysis of democracy in mathematics and mathematics education in european culture

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M. Sencer Corlu

Texas A&M University, USA


The reality that classrooms have become more multicultural each day, partly due to globalization, has changed the culture of the classrooms from the way they were in the past. A one-size-fits-all type of school offering mathematics puts many students at numerous disadvantages. A culturally-relevant mathematics instruction that encompasses axiomatic thinking and practicality, including problem solving is one of the most important requirements of a democratic mathematics education.

This paper defines democracy in mathematics as the falsification of the universality idea, and investigates the historical background of the claim that mathematics is a universal discipline. Democracy in mathematics education, on the other hand, is defined as the successful blend of axiomatic thinking and practicality aspects of mathematics. The paper discusses the instructional consequences of these issues, and how it affected the mathematics education in the contemporary world.

KEY WORDS: Universality of mathematics, history of mathematics, democracy in mathematics education.

Introduction and Operational Definitions

If democracy is defined as the rule of the people, then mathematics is ruled by all those who benefit from it. Thus, it can’t be the universal language because those who benefit from it also contribute to it and change it by interpreting it differently to fix it according to their needs. Similarly, if mathematics education were to be democratic, all aspects of mathematics should have the right to reflect its share on it. Two main traditions that surround mathematics education are mathematical theories and its practical applications in our lives.

Clearly, mathematics and mathematics education develop in correlation. Their common journey has been going on for a very long time, and will likely to continue until the end of humanity. Despite their difference in their origins, one always follows the other and they are in constant interaction. Sometimes they coincide, and sometimes they are far apart from each other in terms of their effect on our lives. Most of the time in history, they contributed to our welfare, and stayed within the limits of democracy. However, there were also times, one or both were quite despotic in their endeavours.

This paper will focus on the time in history after the ancient Greece, when the first foundations of axiomatic thinking —the theory— were set and stayed valid until modern day. The scope of this article doesn’t include the mathematics of Romans, either. My rationale in skipping these two great times of Europe is simply because I believe it would be unfair to assess the early civilizations, when they had no experience of the past that they could compare their practices.

Today, there are numerous articles and significant research (Frankenstein, 1987; Skovsmose, 1994; Gutstein, E., 2006; Ernest, P. 2007), most of which focus on social justice and the role of values in mathematics and mathematics education. This paper will present a historical background that will support these studies.
Democracy in mathematics: Universality issue before algebra

Since the Quadrivium of Boëthius during the early medieval period, mathematics was formally established as a core subject taught at European schools. The four elements of the Quadrivia, as classified by Kline (1953) were pure (arithmetic), stationary (geometry), moving (astronomy), and applied (music) number. They prepared students for a more serious challenge in philosophy and theology. The primary focus of the Quadrivia was the mathematics of stasis, which was a derivation of the quantity concept of Aristotle (Evans, 1975). Because the students at the Quadrivia were practicing to prescribe the current states of number — pure, stationary, moving and applied — the ancient problem of universals as it is applied to number did not become a prominent issue in medieval Europe until the arrival of algebra through Arab merchants.

With the benefit of increasing trade with East, the Europeans of medieval times realized that counting, measuring, locating, designing, explaining, and playing — the six universal behaviours in which mathematics can be observed (Bishop, 2001), were done in radically different ways by different cultures and that they needed to recognize all the different methods in order to keep business going. Thus, universality of arithmetic was not asserted since merchants could see that the same problems were solved differently across the world. Instead, they realized that their social group required them to speak a variety of languages to communicate with their partners, to establish effective interpersonal social processes, and to reach judgment according to the norms of their social class. Mathematics was used for a socially constructive purpose and it became descriptive rather than prescriptive (Ernest, 1991).
Democracy in mathematics education: The invention of algebra

When Al-Khwarizmi published his book called al-jabr, which was a revolutionary revision of a known branch of mathematics since ancient times, mathematics of change was born, and the new way of computing started to spread across the old world. His algorithmic thinking included mechanical rules that were describing the arithmetical processes once and for all. Although the early uses of algebra did not include symbols, it fit into the definition of generalized arithmetic and emerged as a solution to the problem of universals in regards to arithmetic (Peikoff, 1993). Unlike the European elites who had previously been only interested in civitas dei (Kline, 1977), al-jabr was indeed a reflection of the early Islamic thought that encouraged scholars to unite civitas dei and civitas mundi as well as practicality and theory (Gandz, 1938). Al Khwarizmi opened the way that saved mathematics from being a commercialised knowledge at the hands of middle age merchants or from being a subject of abstract reasoning amongst elites of the medieval ages. Otherwise, mathematics could become only the sum of statements of action or only the sum of statements of logic, but instead it has been transformed into the sum of statements of equivalence, thus it was perceived as the study of balance and reunion at his time. The question to be asked at this point is whether it was Al Khwarizmi’s al-jabr that led future scholars to affirm the universality of mathematics.

Democracy in mathematics: Universality idea is born

During the decline of Islamic civilization in the 16th century, mathematics one more time after ancient Greeks, started to go under the influence of a purist ideology that ignored the significance of practical mathematics (Ernest, 2007, p. 4) and mathematics lost its characteristics to be the study of balance between practicality and axiomatic thinking. What was achieved through algebra was lost, and the notion of reunion was abolished. As European merchants started to extend their business to the new world, they carried their knowledge to the natives of the Americas. D’Ambrossio (1994) mentioned that the earliest non-religious book being published in the Americas was an arithmetic book. In this book the natives’ mathematics was explained to the conquerors coming from Europe so they could engage in commerce. A century later, this book was out of circulation, replaced by books dealing with European arithmetic throughout schools in the Americas. D’Ambrossio concluded that the notion of mathematics as a universal language emerged during this era, although Europeans already knew through experience the fact that arithmetic long before was proven not to be universal.

Democracy in mathematics: Modern times

After four centuries, mathematics is no longer believed to be the language of the universe (Wiest, 2002), but it is common to accept it as “symbolic technology” (Bishop, 1988, p.82) — a way of using signs, techniques, procedures in practice — that provides equal opportunity and freedom of speech to all peoples of the world. Historical analysis in this paper concludes that mathematics as a subject was not the reason behind the universality idea. The ideology developed during the colonial age dictated a despotic way of teaching mathematics, and it claimed the universality of mathematics to set a foundation to its philosophy.

It is exciting to imagine how mathematics might have advanced through the contributions of Native American mathematicians in their own way of doing and undoing mathematics if the knowledge of algebra could be passed to them successfully. Perhaps, the Native American mathematicians would have contributed to the language of mathematics in such a way that transferring natural language into the language of mathematics would not be a problem for students today. Perhaps symbols to represent quantities would have been found earlier, so we would not have had to wait until Descartes and Euler's invention of using symbols, in addition to tabular and graphical representations, in order to solve problems like magic squares. Unfortunately, these remain only conjecture.
Democratic mathematics education: Modern times

Barta (2001) advised that we should use mathematics to understand the people with whom we share the planet because it may provide an opportunity to create healthy connections among different cultures. Mathematics has the potential to work for such a purpose only if mathematics education provides such opportunities for students. Our students need a culturally-relevant mathematics instruction so that mathematics will truly make sense to students rather than to educators themselves (Guberman, 1999), because today children live with another worldview than those implied in the mathematics curricula (Rik Pinxten & Karen François, 2007). However, culturally-relevant mathematics should not be understood as the mathematics of African people, or Aboriginal people or other “traditional peoples” as Ascher (1998, p.188) named it. D’Ambrosio (2001) complained about this point of view for teachers who, “… usually refer to cultures that are highly remote from that of the children in the class” for making their lesson multicultural. The point is always to make instruction meaningful in a democratic environment rather than using irrelevant cultural elements, which may distract students.

Today, mathematics is democratic in the sense that universality idea is dismissed. However, mathematics education has still a lot to achieve to be called democratic. Today, our students need a mathematical teaching that will allow them to choose the best amongst the solutions that practical, axiomatic, and problem solving aspects of mathematics offer. Descartes’ or Euler’s suggestion to use symbols to represent unknown quantities made the representation of many complex problems easier, albeit it, making some problems more difficult to solve or resulting in less elegant solutions. A nice example of such problems is the one where students were asked to find the least whole number that when divided by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 leaves a remainder of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 0, respectively. Approaching this problem using symbolic representations makes it almost impossible to solve. However, a little logic, analysis and some thought about the problem simplify it a great deal. This idea brings back the importance of flexible thinking, which results from a democratic education where students are not forced to follow a certain method, but allowed to choose the best possible solution to a problem.

Ideal instruction should focus on all components of mathematics and the ideal school should combine the traditions of Quadrivia, merchant mathematics and algebra. The mathematics instruction should include all of the five components of school mathematics; conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, building strategies, reasoning, and disposition (Kilpatrick, Swafford, & Findell, 2001). These activities should be presented in meaningful contexts where students are required to think about their own thinking, and to develop their own methods to solve real-life problems. Each component is equally indispensable in developing mathematical competence, and none of them should be favoured to the detriment of the others. That is what makes mathematics different from philosophy, engineering or accountancy. Mathematics is not about reasoning or calculations, but requires the ability to integrate both.

Thus, the teacher should create the peaceful environment in a mathematics class where each and every student should be given the opportunity to develop their own best strategies and solve many examples until they master it. The role of the teacher in such a classroom is to create a culturally-related peaceful learning environment.

The teachers, who are willing to listen to the voices of their students, accept alternative points of views, suggestions, and divergent solutions rather than imposing their own methods. These teachers use various methods to teach, and relate their instruction to the interest and culture of their students. On the other hand, teachers who would like their students to learn in the same way they were taught impose a single best solution, with minimal interactions or teamwork and with a focus on the ends/results rather than the means/processes. The peaceful classroom —with meaningful interaction amongst students, and between the teacher and students, or students working in teams— suggests mathematics indeed may work as a way to foster mutual understanding between students with different worldviews (Barta, 2001).


Mathematics is a noble science that may work to lead us to the eternal, non-changing, value-free truth. However, neither mathematics nor mathematics education is eternal, non-changing or value-free. Both are a result of human interest, and shaped by the intensity of the collective feelings of individuals of a culture. Particularly, the importance of mathematics is based on the unity of the universe, however, they are both expressions of human understandings of that unity (Whitehead, 1938).

Mathematics and mathematics education are like birds; they need both of their wings to fly— a good teaching of the power of theory, and an inspiring demonstration of practicality. Teachers are responsible in creating such a classroom culture that will not only foster mutual understanding of different mathematics as it is done by students from various cultures, but also a deep appreciation of the mathematics as it was done in the past. This will create the democracy in today’s multicultural mathematics classrooms.

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