Posts Tagged ‘Duke Ellington’

A Black American Intellectual’s Attack on Official Attitudes on Race

June 19, 2022

Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Race (New York: Basic Books 2013)

Thomas Sowell is himself a Black American intellectual. A former Marxist, he wrote an excellent book on Marxism which I’ve used on this blog, before crossing the floor to become a conservative. According to the blurb on the back flap, he is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow for Public Policy at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. That’s the same Milton Friedman, I presume, who backed General Pinochet’s Fascist regime in Chile because only a Fascist regime could introduce the free market reforms and abolition of the welfare state Friedman wanted against the wishes of the workers. The same Milton Friedman whose monetarism was considered so daft by economics lecturers in the 1970s that they simply didn’t bother discussing or refuting them. The same Friedman who caused consternation in Tory ranks in the late 1980s when he announced that his policies were a failure.

Race and IQ in the views of the Progressives

The book is a survey of official attitudes to race, intelligence and social, economic and intellectual achievement from the Progressive era around the close of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th up to the late 20th century and today. These two periods had markedly different attitudes towards race, and especially its supposed links to intelligence. During the Progressive era, senior academics, intellectuals, politicians and policy makers followed the social Darwinist dogmas of their day and believed that race defined intelligence. They believe in a racial hierarchy of peoples, with Nordic Whites at the top, southern Europeans below them, Black Africans below them and right at the bottom aboriginal Australians. This led to brutal, callous and genocidal attitudes towards race. Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, declared that ‘we should not be sentimental about the gradual extinction of inferior races’. They were particularly worried about the decline in superior Nordic immigrants from Europe and mass immigration from the supposedly inferior peoples from southern Europe. Hence they were keen to impose legislation limiting the arrival of the latter. They were also afraid that intellectual inferior Whites from the lower orders would also outbreed their more intelligent social superiors, and so imposed legislation providing for their sterilisation and isolation. These men weren’t cranks. They included leading academics from America’s best universities, and politicians like American presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Most of the examples Sowell gives were on the political left. They believed in conservation, state intervention, publicly owned utilities and strong trade unions. He does, however, mention that over here in Britain eugenics’ supporters included Ernest Beveridge, H.G. Wells and Conservatives like Winston Churchill.

The American authorities thus initiated a programme of IQ testing, the results of which do appear to show that they were right about the average IQ of certain racial groups at the time. But many of the groups whose IQ scores were low have gone on to achieve considerable social and economic success. Blacks had an average IQ of 85, but other immigrant groups like Greeks, various Slavic peoples also had IQs in the low 80s, while Spanish immigrants had an average IQ, on these tests, of 77. These low-scoring peoples also included eastern European Jews, which is astonishing given the massive uplift of the Jewish community and their prominence in academia. As for the Chinese, who believers in the Bell Curve consider are superior to Whites in intelligence, they were found to have an IQ of 98. Interestingly, Blacks from the northern US scored higher on IQ tests than southern Whites. This racist ideology had a direct effect on Black employability. Under Wilson, various state departments, such as the post office, began to sack their Black workers. But not all of those who believed in the link between race and IQ were monsters. One psychologist stated that he took 3 sessions with a child before administering the test. He believed the children he saw were more intelligent than the tests showed. he therefore spent time getting them used to him. In the first three sessions he let them play, drawing on the blackboard, making things with clay. It was at the fourth session he administered the test. Using this technique, the children’s test scores went up by 8 points. This psychiatrist still believed that this was a small amount, but it is roughly half of the 15 per cent average difference between Black and White IQs. The link between IQ and race was later discredited when another psychiatrist issued damning criticisms against it, one of which was that the tests were not often not administered in a language the subjects, often immigrants, understood. The same psychiatrist also did not believe that Blacks were incapable of being educated, but thought that they could achieve much more given better teaching methods.

General Rise in IQ

He also notes that IQs generally are rising, and that no-one really knows the true range of the Black IQ, or even that of the human race as a whole. The reason why average IQs have always remained at 100 is that they’ve been periodically renormed to keep 100 as the average level. If they weren’t, and psychiatrists continued using the same standards, then the average Black IQ would 104. As for the range of Black intelligence, he cites the example of a nine year old girl, who by one set of tests had an IQ of 140, and 200 by another set. Unfortunately, his scepticism towards racial differences in IQ does not extend to the Bell Curve, whose authors and work he defends. He notes that they state in the book that there isn’t enough evidence to decide one way or another if IQ is affected by race.

But IQ alone does not explain why some groups outperform others, even when their intelligence is exactly the same. For example, Chinese with an IQ of 100 perform at the same level in jobs, education and so on, as Whites with IQs of 120 or so.

Culture and Historic Environment as the Determining Factors in Ethnic Skills and Performance

Sowell believes that the performance of ethnic groups depends on the environment in which these groups historically lived and their traditional culture. These create skills which have allowed minority groups the world over to achieve prominence in business and academia, such as the Germans in Latvia and Bohemia, the Jews in eastern Europe, and the Chinese in Indonesia and Malaysia. These groups have often prospered despite immense persecution, like the Jews. For example, Italian immigrants to the US and Australia were dirt poor. But they always repaid their debts, hence a separate bank was set up in California, the Bank of Italy, was set up to cater to them. This bank eventually became the Bank of Italy. At the same time there was a marked disparity between the achievements of Jewish and Italian kids at school. The two groups lived in the same areas and attended the same schools. But Jews did much better than Italians. Why? Sowell puts this down to different cultural attitudes towards education. Even the poorest Jews had a respect for learning, while there was a hostility to it in the Italian south, from which many of the latter migrants came. When there Italian government introduced compulsory schooling, there were riots, and attacks on teachers and schools. He takes issue with some of these groups now being described as ‘privileged’. A survey of different races in Toronto declared that the Japanese were the most privileged people in the city. But the Japanese owe their success to their own efforts, not privilege. They were also subjected to restrictive legislation and were interned during the Second World War for far longer in Canada than in the US. He is also highly sceptical that racism accounts for the poor performance of American Blacks. While they’re often the last to be hired, and the first to be fired, the next in line for sacking are Whites. Asians are the last to go, and perform better generally than Whites, even in White owned companies. But this is not mentioned in discussions about race, as it would cast doubt about the poor performance of Blacks being solely due to White racial prejudice.

White Racism as the Cause for Black Marginalisation

And it’s White racial prejudice which is the dominant explanation for Blacks lagging behind Whites and the rest of society today. This began with Gunnar Murdal’s 1944 book, An American Dilemma, which claimed that this was due to ‘confused and contradictory’ attitudes among Whites. But Sowell considers this an insufficient explanation, as American Blacks made their greatest progress, both professionally, economically and educationally, during the period before the Civil Rights Act, when racism and overt discrimination was far more acute. He also describes how White racial attitudes changed over time. For example, from 1840 to 1890 some areas were remarkably racially tolerant. In these cities, Whites and Blacks lived in the same areas. As time went on, Blacks not only exercised their right to vote, but also were elected themselves in areas where the majority of voters were White. There were no zoning regulations and the communities weren’t segregated. Sowell believes this was because the Black communities that had moved north in this period had become acculturated and had the same values and standards of behaviour as their White neighbours. This changed with mass Black migration from the south. Sowell draws on observers to the south, like Alexis de Toqueville, Frederick Olmsted and others, to argue that there is a common southern culture, shared by Blacks and Whites, and ultimately coming from the British immigrants that settled those areas. This culture rejects education in favour of aggressive masculinity., The new Black migrants had none of cultural values of the previous Black arrivals,. Crime rates shot up, dismaying the traditional Black citizens as well as Whites. As a result, these communities introduced zoning laws segregating the two colours.

As time went on, the Progressives called themselves liberals, and the explanation for Black underachievement and poverty changed from intelligence to White racism. The solution for these ills, as proposed by the intellectuals, is multiculturalism. Blacks are to be given greater access to academic places through preferential treatment that allows them to get into universities with lower grades than White applicants. At the same time, the features of Black culture that are holding the Black community back are either excused or simply denied as well as the racist attacks by Black gangs on Whites and Asians. Multiculturalism, according to Sowell, is not only not working, it is actually positively harmful.

Affirmative Action Holding Blacks Back Educationally

The book argues that, contrary to the claims made by some educationalists, there doesn’t need to be a ‘critical mass’ of Blacks in a class to get the bright Black students to do better. What works instead is when bright blacks are put in with Whites at the same intellectual level. As for university admissions, much harm is being done through mismatching Black applicants with the wrong colleges. Elite American universities are giving places to Black students, who without such preferential placements would have gone instead to second tier universities. These students find it difficult to keep up, and drop out. The second tier universities, denied a pool of applicants from these aspiring Blacks, offer places instead to Blacks, who would have gone to third tier institutions. And these two drop out, all the way down the line. This is a controversial assertion, and has been argued against, though the professors doing so have not made their research available to scrutiny by others. The book instead to the academic results achieved by the University of California when they dropped giving such preferential placements. There were drops in admissions at the some campuses, but of the Blacks who attended, more passed with better grades. He also argues from the example of Amhurst College that teaching Black history and insisting on Black culture also isn’t necessary for Blacks to get ahead. Amhurst was a Black only college that sent a small but significant number of students on to Stanford. Alumni from the college have said that they were taught Black history as it affect America, like slavery and abolition. But beyond that, it wasn’t taught and there was no interest in it. They said they knew about as much about Africa as they knew about Finland.

He also criticises such academic preferential programmes on the grounds that they don’t work for the poor who really need them. Instead the places offered go to members of the upper classes of the groups targeted. In America, that means the children of lawyers and businessmen. And it’s the same with the Indian version of affirmative action.

The Decline of Black Communities Following the ‘White Racism’ Explanation

Sowell also gets angry about how multiculturalism has led to the decline of life in Black communities. Anything done by Whites for Blacks is immediately suspected of being for some sinister, racist purpose. When a subsidized housing project was built in Harlem in the 1960s, writer James Baldwin declared that it showed how much Whites hated Blacks. That was why people were urinating in the lifts, smashing anything they could, and fornicating in the playground. Sowell argues that there was never a time when this would have been acceptable, and it didn’t occur before the ’60s and White racism became the explanation for everything. He cites the memoirs of other former residents of Harlem, who say that when they lived there, none of this vandalism and loutish behaviour occurred. He cites Theodore Dalrymple, one of the columnists in the Spectator, who declared that the same destructiveness is found among lower class Whites in Britain. They can’t blame racism, so it must come from a common attitude of resentment fostered by the post-60s intelligentsia.

He also argues that most Blacks were against the race riots of the 60s, citing polling data. One of the polls showed that 58 per cent of Blacks thought the riots were harmful for them. But the rioting was excused by the media, which claimed that the anger that fuelled it was quite rightly felt by all Blacks. Sowell is concerned and angry at the way Black culture is being dragged down to the lowest common denominator of rioters, criminals and vandals. He suggests that Black underperformance in schools comes from a resentment of intelligent, academically able Blacks by other students, who will attempt to stop them from achieving. And the same attitude, according to Dalrymple, exists among White Brits. From my own experiences at school forty years ago, I think Sowell has a point. There is a resentment among some Blacks and some Whites, not all, against anybody, who seems to be doing better than them, and they will bully them. For Sowell, this clearly harms the Black community when middle class Blacks feel compelled to emulate the poor behaviour of their less-achieving classmates.

Multiculturalism Preventing Blacks from Acquiring Social Skills Leading to Achievement

This attitude prevents Black Americans from acquiring the same civic qualities and skills that other groups have in their progress upward through society. For example, German Jews were highly acculturated, compared to more recent immigrants from eastern Europe. They took it upon themselves to educate and uplift them. As a result, eastern European Jews from Romania and elsewhere were told to learn English, speak without vulgarity ‘and learn the uses of soap’. Two Black newspapers in one of America’s northern cities advised Black arrivals not to dump their rubbish in the yard or the passage by their houses, watch their language, and not to talk too loudly on the tramcars. In other words, to act couth. Sowell doesn’t mention it, but similar attitudes were impressed on the British working class during the 19th and early 20th century as part of the culture of working class respectability.

Again, there’s a similar example from Britain. In the 1980s or 1990s, according to the Independent, the head of education in one of the northern towns had lost her job following accusations of racism by the Pakistani community. She’d been concerned at the way they took their children out of schools to send to Pakistan for three months at a time. This was damaging their educations. But the Pakistani community denounced her as racist, and had her sacked. It was over a decade before the council realised she was right and had the courage to reverse the policy.

Multiculturalism Creating Anti-White Racism and Violence

And then there’s the racial animosity produced by multiculturalism and its attitude that all Black America’s problems are due to White racism. This has led to racist mob attacks by Blacks against Whites and Asians, but they aren’t reported. In one, where a gang of Blacks attacked a White girl and 10 others, the cops when they arrived weren’t interested in taking down their statements or particulars, but told them simply to go home. As for a girl left bleeding from a punch, they laughed at her and joked ‘White girl bleed a lot’, which became the title of a book arguing that there was more violence by Blacks against Whites than the reverse. When these attacks occur, the race of the attackers is never identified. They are just unspecified ‘youths’. And if the details are given, then racism as a motive is both denied and justified. After a White woman was gangraped in Central Park by Blacks, a New York Times hack declared that racism wasn’t a cause, but it was part of their motivation as resentment against their treatment by White society. At the same time, a White academic has redefined racism so that it depends on power and privilege, as a way of denying Blacks can be racist.

Something very much like this has happened in Britain. Back at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of this one, Whites were briefly the ethnic group suffering most racist assaults. And it was noted that the number of racist murders of Whites was nearly at the same level as the White racist murder of Blacks. And then there were the Asian grooming gangs, were allowed to get away with their predations for 20 years because the police and authorities were afraid of being accused of racism. And there have been the same accusations of the media cover-up of racist assaults and murders of Whites.

Another White academic felt that it was only right that young Whites should be denied places under academic preference schemes, considering how he had benefited from White privilege. Sowell states that he was therefore punishing someone younger, who had nothing to do with it, for something he himself had done. He makes the point that these decision are not about abstract people, but affect real individuals.

Slavery

He also discusses slavery, which is now held to be simply a case of Whites enslaving Blacks. But it has existed all over the world, from the days of the Roman Empire onwards. Before the arrival of Europeans, Africans enslaved other Africans, and there were more slaves in India than in the whole of the USA, and slavery was also extensive in China and southeast Asia. White Europeans were also enslaved by the Barbary pirates. Before the technology existed to transport slaves en masse, most civilisations enslaved people of their own race. As for racist lynchings, fewer Blacks were lynched in American history than Armenians were killed by Turks, or Ibo tribesmen by Nigerians in one year.

The Racism Industry and Its Assault on Business

He is also critical of what he terms the race industry and particularly the American equivalent of the Equal Opportunities Commission/ Equalities and Human Rights Commission. This prosecutes companies for not employing the correct number of ethnic employees according to demographic statistics, leading to long, expensive cases costing millions of dollars which drag out over the years from court to court. And this is despite no individual actually claiming they were subjected to racism by that corporation. Few companies can afford this process, and so they settle out of court. While this technically means that no offence has been made, it is taken by the department as an admission of guilt and a victory for them.

And what also infuriates Sowell is that none of the intellectuals, who ever pushed these policies, whether it is the racism and genetic determinism of the Progressive era or contemporary multiculturalism, ever has to take the consequences of their views. But academics, news people, politicians and educators will pay the price if they speak out against these orthodoxies. But intellectuals, meanwhile, promote these views with impunity, seeing themselves as the anointed on the side of the angels.

Sowell’s Right-Wing Bias

The book has a clear conservative bias. It’s no accident that Sowell marks out the Progressives as the promoters of social Darwinism, despite the same views being held by the right. Big businessmen during the Silver Age of the 19th century used social Darwinist arguments to oppose welfare and safety at work legislation. It was no use passing these laws, they argued, because the poor would never really benefit and would instead become a burden on society while outbreeding their brighter, more successful social superiors. But American conservatives are now using past racism to discredit anything left-wing. Previous generations of left-wingers were supposedly racist, so you shouldn’t back their policies today. It’s pure guilt by association. He likewise blames the expansion of the welfare state for the decline of the Black family, and argues that Black employment fell as a result of minimum wage laws passed in the 1930s. The motive of some of those arguing for them was that they were needed to prevent Chinese workers undercutting Whites. But this did happen, and resulted in race riots against the Chinese in 1909 in Britain. Then a number of companies sacked their White workers and replaced them with Chinese, causing the riots and racist attacks on Chinese people. After this, the firms sacked the Chinese workers and rehired the Whites. As for minimum wage laws today, these are desperately needed whether the workers are White, Black, Brown, Yellow or whatever. Without them the mass poverty we’re already seeing thanks to neoliberalism and the war in Ukraine will become particularly acute.

Decline of Marriage Not Due to Welfare State

I also disagree with his statement that the decline of marriage and the two-parent family among Black Americans is due to the welfare state or its expansion. I’m sure he’s right that this occurred in America about the same time as LBJ passed the welfare legislation of the late 60s, but as Sowell himself says, correlation is not causation. In Britain the marriage rate declined as a result of the sexual revolution of the 60s, but only really got going in the 1970s,, several decades after the introduction of the welfare state by Clement Attlee’s Labour government in 1948. The decline of marriage as an institution might have been aided by the socially liberal legislation passed by Roy Jenkins in the 1960s, which made divorce much easier, but I think it has far more to do with a changing attitude towards sexual morality than greater welfare provision. At least over here in Britain.

Racial Tensions Increasing

But I do think he has a point about multiculturalism and the way it is leading to greater racial tensions. At one point in the book he states that in the 30s, 40s and 50s Whites would go into Harlem for entertainment and parties. This rings true, if only because this was the heyday of some of the great Jazz musicians and their orchestras – Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Howlin’ Wolf, Duke Ellington. Yeah, I know, some of these were really in New Orleans, while Howling Wolf was in Chicago. At the end of a good evening’s fun, people were even able to sleep in Central Park unmolested. I believe that as well, as I’ve read interviews with various writers – I think one of them was veteran journalist of UFOs and the weird John Keel – who have done so.

And I do believe that attributing all of Black America’s problems to racism is making the situation worse. Note here that Sowell doesn’t deny racism existed or exists now. He just doesn’t believe that it’s the ultimate cause of Black America’s dire situation, not when other groups have suffered the same persecution, started out with the same low IQ scores, but have managed to rise and prosper like Jews, Asians and the Chinese. And here the book becomes a warning. Throughout history the resentment of the success of one ethnic group by the others, from the Czechs’ resentment of the Sudetenland Germans, to the Chinese in southeast Asia and Malaya, the Indians and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, and the Jews in eastern Europe, has resulted in terrible official persecution and ethnic cleansing. Here he could have added the White farmers in Zimbabwe, attacked, beaten and murdered by Robert Mugabe’s thugs. These tensions have been exacerbated by versions of affirmative action. This suggestion also contains another veiled criticism of socialism, as the resentments he criticise also apply to those at the bottom of society against those at the top, and he is very much against redistributive economics. But redistributive economics through a strong welfare state in Britain has meant that there hasn’t been the level of grinding poverty that there is in the US, where the living standards of some parts are worse than some developing countries. This may be one of the reasons why the crime rate here in Britain and Europe has traditionally been lower than the US. People traditionally haven’t been as desperate. Quite apart from the fact that if social tensions in America and Britain have got worse, it’s because of an increasing gap between the rich and everyone else, so that ordinary Americans and Brits don’t feel that the system is rewarding them as it should for their hard work.

Critical Race Theory as an Explanation for the Failure of Affirmative Action Programmes

Sowell states that these affirmative actions programmes were, in many cases, only supposed to be temporary. But they have always been renewed. We’ve had positive discrimination in Britain for forty years now, ever since riots of 1981/2. These were also supposed to be only temporary. I think the intention was that after Blacks gained proper demographic representation proportional to the White majority, the situation would become self-sustaining. The programmes could be discontinued because Blacks would no longer need such official help. But this hasn’t happened. Blacks still lag behind, and have been particularly hard hit by austerity and the banking crisis.

I think this is one reason why the radical left is pushing Critical Race Theory and White privilege, even though some of this is obvious nonsense. CRT holds that the level of racism is the same today as 100 years ago. It’s just better hidden. But I doubt that very, very much. At the same time, all Whites are racist and benefit from the privilege of having White skin. But this is also not true, as shown by the White vagrants you can see on the streets and the very fact that many of the BLM protesters were White. There is institutional racism, but I don’t think it can be held to be the source of all the Black community’s problems. And I do fear that the belief that White racism is responsible for Black poverty and marginalisation is just increasing racial tensions. CRT and White privilege seem to me to be a desperate attempt to explain why previous anti-racism policies haven’t worked, and making even more dubious claims. Sowell states that the supporters of multiculturalism never give any supporting evidence for their views, and are never asked for any. It’s just assumed they’re right. The Black Tory MP, Kemi Badenoch, has today been reported as stating that the concentration on race is resulting in greater segregation. She may well have a point.

Perhaps now’s the time that multiculturalism and its accusations of racism as the cause of Black poverty and marginalisation should be questioned.

History Debunked Refutes Ethnomathematics/Rehumanizing Mathematics

September 8, 2020

This is another video from History Debunked. In it, youtuber and author Simon Webb attacks Ethnomatics, sometimes also called Rehumanizing Mathematics. This is a piece of modern pseudo-scholarship designed to help Black children tackle Maths. The idea is that Blacks perform poorly compared at Maths compared to other ethnic groups. This is held to be because Maths is the creation of White men, and this puts Blacks off studying and mastering it.

The solution has been to scrutinise African societies for their indigenous Maths, especially the Dogon of Mali. They have been chosen as the chief model for all this, as they possessed extremely advanced astronomical and mathematical knowledge. In the 1970s there was a book, The Sirius Mystery by Robert K.G. Temple, which claimed that they owed this advance knowledge to contact with space aliens. Apparently this claim was subsequently dropped 10 – 15 years later, and the claim made instead that they were just superlative astronomers and mathematicians themselves. But Dogon Maths is held to be different from White, western Maths because it’s spiritual. History Debunked then goes on to demonstrate the type of pseudo-scientific nonsense this has lead to by providing a link to an Ethnomathematics paper and reading out its conclusion. It’s the kind of pretentious verbiage the late, great Jazzman, Duke Ellington, said stunk up the place. It’s the kind of postmodern twaddle that Sokal and Bricmont exposed in their Intellectual Impostures. It’s deliberately designed to sound impressive without actually meaning anything. There’s a lot of talk about expanding cognitive horizons and possibilities, but History Debunked himself says he doesn’t understand a word of it. And neither, I guess, will most people. Because it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just there to sound impressive and bamboozle the reader into thinking that somehow they’re thick because they don’t, while the fault is entirely the writers.

I think History Debunked is a man of the right, and certainly his commenters are Conservatives, some with extremely right-wing views. He’s produced a series of videos attacking the pseudo-history being pushed as Black History, and apparently Seattle in America is particularly involved in promoting this nonsense. But he expects it to come over here in a few years. Given the way Black History month has jumped the Atlantic, I think he’s right.

There’s been a particular emphasis on find ancient Black maths and science for some time I know. For a brief while I got on well with a Black studies group when I was a volunteer at the slavery archives in the former Empire and Commonwealth Museum. That was before I read their magazine and got so annoyed with it and its attitude to Whites that I sent them a whole load of material arguing to the contrary, and pointing out that in places like the Sudan, Blacks were being enslaved and oppressed not by White Europeans, but by the Arabs. I also sent them material about the poor Whites of South Africa, who also lived in grinding poverty thanks to Apartheid. This was stuff they really didn’t want to hear, and I was told that if I wanted to talk to them further, I should do so through someone else. They were also interested in finding examples of Black maths and science. I sent them photocopies and notes I’d made of various medieval Muslim mathematicians. These were Arabs and Persians, like al-Khwarizmi, who gave his name to the word algorithm, Omar Khayyam, best known in the west for his Rubayyat, but who was also a brilliant mathematician, al-Haytham, who invented the camera obscura in the 12th century and others, rather than Black. But they were grateful for what I sent them nonetheless, and I thanked me. This was before I blotted my copybook with them.

I’m reposting this piece because, although it comes from the political, it is correct. And you don’t have to be right-wing to recognise and attack this kind of postmodern rubbish. Sokal and Bricmont, the authors of the book I mentioned early attacking postmodernism, were both men of the left. Sokal was a physicist, who taught maths in Nicaragua under the left-wing Sandinista government. They wrote the book because they took seriously George Orwell’s dictum that writing about politics means writing clearly in language everyone can understand. And even if you believe that Black people do need particular help with maths because of issues of race and ethnicity, Ethnomathematics as it stands really doesn’t appear to be it. It just seems to be filling children’s heads with voguish nonsense, rather than real knowledge.

I also remember the wild claims made about the Dogon and their supposed contact with space aliens. Part of it came from the Dogon possessing astronomical knowledge well beyond their level of technology. They knew, for example, that Sirius has a companion star, invisible to the naked eye, Sirius B. They also knew that our solar system had nine planets, although that’s now been subsequently altered. According to the International Astronomical Association or Union or whatever, the solar system has eight planets. Pluto, previously a planet, has been downgraded to dwarf planet, because it’s the same size as some of the planetoids in the Kuiper Belt. Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince discuss this in one their books,The Stargate Conspiracy (London: Little, Brown & Company 1999), which claimed that the American intelligence agencies were secretly preparing a fake UFO landing in order to convince everyone that the space gods really had arrived, and set up a one-world dictatorship. This hasn’t happened, and I’ve seen the Fortean Times and other weird magazines trying to explain their book as a high-level hoax which people took too seriously. I don’t believe this, as they seemed very serious at the time. The Dogon believe that the first human ancestors, and some of their gods, came from the sky. Hence Temple’s claim that they were contacted by space aliens. Picknett and Prince, however, sided with sceptics like Carl Sagan. They argued instead ithat the Dogon owed it to a French priest, anthropologist or colonial administrator, I’ve forgotten which, who visited them in the 1920s and who was extremely interested in astronomy. This seems to me to be far more likely than that they either got it from space aliens or that they far better mathematicians and astronomers than they could have been at their level of development.

The Dogon are fascinating as their homes and villages are laid out to be microcosms of the male and female human body and the universe. The book African Mythology by Geoffrey Parrinder, London: Hamlyn 1967, describes the layout of a Dogon house thus:

The shape of the Dogon house is symbolical. The floor is like the earth and the flat roof like heaven. The vestibule is a man and the central room woman, with store rooms at her sides as arms. The hear at the end is her head. The four posts are the man and woman entwined in union. So the family house represents the unity of man and woman and God and the Earth. This is accompanied by the elevation and ground plan of a typical Dogon house. (p. 49).

There’s also this diagram of an idealised Dogon village:

The caption for the diagrame reads:

Like the house, the Dogon village represents human beings. The smithy is at the head like a hearth in a house. The family houses in the centre and millstones and village represent the sexes. Other altars are the feet. (p. 51).

Truly, a fascinating people and I have no problem anybody wanting to study them. But it should be in anthropology, ethnography or comparative religion, not maths.

But it struck me that if teachers and educators want to enthuse and inspire young minds with what maths Africans were studying, they could start with ancient Egypt and the great Muslim civilisations of the Sahara and north Africa, like Mali. Aminatta Forna in one of her programmes on these civilisations was shown an ancient astronomical text from the medieval library of one of these towns, which she was told showed that Muslims knew the Earth orbited the sun before Copernicus and Galileo. I doubt that very much. It looks like a form of a combined helio-and geocentric system, first proposed by the ancient Greeks, and then taken up by some medieval astronomers not just in Islam, but also in Christian Europe. In this system, all the other planets when round the Sun, which orbited the Earth. Close to the modern system, but not quite. But it showed that the Black citizens of that civilisation were in contact with the great currents of Muslim science, and that they would have had learnt and taught the same kind of Maths that was being investigated and researcher right across the Muslim world, from India to Morocco and further south to Mali. One of the Black educationalists would like to translate one of these books from Arabic, the learned language of Muslim civilisation, and use it as an example of the kind of maths that was also taught in Black Africa.

Or you could go right back to ancient Egypt. Mathematical texts from the Land of the Nile have also survived in the Moscow and Rhind mathematical papyri. These have various maths problems and their solution. For example, problem No. 7 of the Moscow papyrus is about various calculations for a triangle. This runs

Example of calculating a triangle.

If you are told: A triangle of 2 thousands-of-land, the bank of 2 of 2 1/2;

You are to double the area: result 40 (arurae). Take (it) 2 1/2 times; result [100. Take its square root, namely] 10. Evoke 1 from 2 1/2; what results is 2/5. Apply this to 10; result 4. It is 10 (khet) in length by 4 (khet) in breadth. From Henrietta Midonick, The Treasury of Mathematics: 1 (Harmondsworth: Pelican 1965) p. 71.

It’s amazing to think that the boys at the scribal school were being taught all this millennia ago. It gives you a real sense of connection with the ancient schoolkids reading it. You can imagine them, hunched over with their pen and ink, busily cudgeling their brains while the teacher prowls about them. The Babylonians were also renowned as the pioneers of early mathematics. They even uncovered a school when they excavated Ur of the Chaldees in the 1920s, complete with the maths and other texts the schoolboys – female education didn’t exist back then, but I’m willing to be corrected – were required to learn. As a schoolboy character in the Fast Show used to say: ‘Brilliant!’ You don’t need to burden modern African societies like the Dogon with spurious pseudo-history and pseudo-science, when the real historic achievements of ancient Egypt and medieval Africa are so impressive.

It struck me that even if you don’t use the original Egyptian maths texts to teach maths – which would be difficult, as their maths was slightly different. Their method of calculating the area of a field of four unequal sides yields far too high a figure, for example – you could nevertheless inspire children with similar problems. Perhaps you could do it with assistance of a child or two from the class. You could bring them out in front of everyone, give them and ancient Egyptian headdress, and then arranged the lesson so that they helped the teacher, acting as pharaoh, to solve it. Or else pharaoh showed them, his scribes, and thus the class. This is certainly the kind of thing that was done when I was a kid by the awesome Johnny Ball on the children’s maths and science programme, Think of a Number. And every week, as well as showing you a bit of maths and science, he also showed you a trick, which you could find out how to do by dropping him a line. It was the kind of children’s programme that the Beeb did very, very well. It’s a real pity that there no longer is an audience for children’s programmes and their funding has subsequently been cut.

Here’s History Debunked’s video attacking Ethnomathematics. He also attacks a piece of ancient baboon bone carved with notches, which he states has been claimed is an ancient prehistoric African calendar. He provides no evidence in this video to show that it wasn’t, and says its the subject of a later video. If this is the one I’m thinking of, then that is a claim that has been accepted by mainstream archaeologists and historians. See Ivor Grattan-Guinness, The Fontana History of the Mathematical Sciences (London: Fontana Press 1998) p. 24.

If you want to know more about ancient and medieval maths, and that of the world’s many indigenous cultures, see the book Astronomy before the Telescope, edited by Christopher Walker with an introduction by the man of the crumpled suit and monocle himself, Patrick Moore (London: British Museum Press 1998).

This has chapters on astronomy in Europe from prehistory to the Renaissance, but also on astronomy in ancient Egypt, Babylonia, India, Islam, China, Korea and Japan, North and South America, traditional astronomical knowledge in Africa and among Aboriginal Australians, Polynesia and the Maori. It can be a difficult read, as it explores some very technical aspects, but it is a brilliant work by experts in their respective fields.