Sarvodaya Samaj: the link between social justice and mathematics

Pooja Keshavan Singh

Mathematics continues to ‘enjoy’ an elitist position in the minds of its stakeholders. It has been the gatekeeper subject for decades. Many people live with guilt all their lives for not being able to do mathematics confidently while they always ‘managed’ the exams. No matter how well placed they are in life this feeling of inadequacy lingers on. Should it or should it not, is, seemingly, a personal choice but in reality it is not. Let us see why?

fun-with-maths According to historical records, in 1835 Lord Macaulay addressed the British parliament with his understanding of India and its cultural heritage. He told the gathering that India is so rich in every aspect that the only way to enslave it is to break its backbone which is its ancient and robust education system. Unless the Indians lose their self-esteem and take pride in everything that is foreign or English, Britain would not succeed. As a measure to colonise us psychologically the British started schooling a selected few in English language and mathematics to create the class versus mass divide. It is not that the Indian society was homogeneous prior to this but now the basis of division was English education and it was to be glamorized henceforth.

Our colonisers succeeded in alienating us from our roots through English education and through rejection of everything that was indigenous. We continue to live with the burden of our collective memories of colonisation. Indian children rarely feel the pride of belonging to a nation that pioneered scientific and mathematical discoveries much before the world could think about them. We never read about the systematic work done by Aryabhatta and Bhaskaracharya like we have read about Euclid and Newton. This is the reason why mathematics remains on the ‘pedestal’, because it belongs to another culture altogether.

Gandhiji was aware of this divide and he incessantly fought to restore the lost pride of Indian people. He knew that our education system alone could help attain a ‘Sarvodaya Samaj’ in which the vertical and horizontal gaps between various classes is minimized. He also advocated that education be inclusive of 3Hs instead of 3Rs, that is the Head, the Hand, and the Heart. Sadly, where we stand today is the direct opposite of where Gandhiji wanted us to be. Through this article I want to establish a link between how teaching of mathematics can help us move towards a more equitable society as envisioned by Gandhiji.

We are aware of how we continue to study mathematics content that lacks any real world, let alone socially relevant, contexts. Mathematics is seen as a subject that eases social mobility rather than criticality. ‘Social Justice Math’ aims to integrate social justice issues into mathematics classes. It has two main components. The first component consists of lessons and investigations that increase students’ math literacy, problem solving, reasoning, and critical thinking abilities. The second component is, understanding issues of social, political, and economic justice via a mathematical lens and developing mathematically sound solutions to address these problems (Osler 2007). Let me explain this through some examples of classroom lessons.

The author has been teaching mathematics and mathematics pedagogy courses for many years. She can be reached at poojakeshavan@yahoo.com.

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