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Math Today

Calls to “decolonize math” are a distraction from the importance of teaching it

We don’t need to “decolonize mathematics,” Mark Ronan writes in The Critic. It has already been decolonized: “I have heard claims that we unfairly credit the Greeks, but that is to ignore the work of historians in the past hundred years. Algebra and arithmetic in the modern sense were not due to the Greeks. What we do owe to them is clarity and methodology, contained within a beautifully structured whole. Little wonder Euclid’s Elements was translated into Arabic for scholars in the early Islamic world who wanted to learn from what had gone before.”

But we do need to teach it, Michael Auslin argues in The National Interest: “The race for AI supremacy has become perhaps the most visible aspect of the great power competition between America and China. The world’s dominant AI power will have the ability to shape global finance, commerce, telecommunications, warfighting, and computing. President Donald Trump recognized this last February by signing an executive order, the ‘American AI Initiative,’ designed to protect U.S. leadership in key AI technologies. In just a few years, American corporations, universities, think tanks, and the government have devoted hundreds of policy papers and projects to addressing this challenge. Yet forget about ‘AI’ itself. It’s all about the math, and America is failing to train enough citizens in the right kinds of mathematics to remain dominant. AI is not simply a black box that will grow if unlimited funds are poured into it. Dozens of think tank projects and government reports won’t mean anything if Americans can’t maintain mastery over the fundamental mathematics that underpin AI. Calls for billions of dollars in related investments won’t add up without the abstract math ability needed to transform the economy or military. What we call ‘AI’ is in fact a suite of various algorithms and distinctive developments that draw heavily from advanced mathematics and statistics.”

In other news: Does Robert E. Lee have anything to teach us today? Helen Andrews argues he does on the main page of today’s American Conservative:

There once was a general who fought a war to protect slavery. That’s not how he would have described it. He would have said he was fighting to protect his way of life from a foreign invader. Whatever construction he put on it, his so-called way of life rested on the sweat wrung from forced labor on plantations and gold earned from buying and selling black flesh.

That general was Samori Touré. The West African chieftain is honored today by black nationalists for resisting French imperialism in the Mandingo Wars of the late nineteenth century, but thousands of Africans were enslaved by Samori’s raiders in the course of building up his empire. After his final defeat in 1898, for more than a decade, columns of refugees tramped into French Guinea to return to their home villages as they escaped or were liberated from Banamba or Bamako or wherever Samori’s men had sold them.

Ta-Nehisi Coates named his son Samori, after the great resister. That means that Between the World and Me, the best-selling anti-racist tract of the current century, which takes the form of letters from Coates to his son, is addressed to someone named after a prolific enslaver of black Africans.

History is complicated, isn’t it?

America is currently in the middle of one of its periodic orgies of tearing down memorials to the past. The iconoclasts always have an advantage in these fights, because their opponents have different breaking points. Some Americans were happy to conciliate the protestors until a mob in Portland defaced a statue of George Washington. Others reserved their indignation for when a mob in Golden Gate Park toppled Junípero Serra, Francis Scott Key, and (of all people) Ulysses S. Grant in one night. In New York, the city council is proposing to trash the city’s statue of Thomas Jefferson, which will at least be accomplished by an orderly vote rather than a howling crowd. Some people have persuaded themselves that that makes it all right.

For me, a line was crossed this week when the faculty at Washington & Lee University voted to demand the school drop the second half of its name to erase its affiliation with Robert E. Lee. The moderate conservative’s justification for why it’s good to tear down Confederate statues but not those of the Founding Fathers is that Confederates are honored for defending slavery whereas the Founding Fathers are honored for other things despite their slave-owning. Whatever the general validity of that maneuver, it is obviously wrong here. Lee was president of the university; he gave it its distinctive character. His service as its leader was one of the great public-spirited acts of his late career, the most enduring of his many postwar gestures of patriotism and reconciliation.

Lee may not be someone you care to defend, even in his most defensible context. The point is that the current crop of fanatics are going to tear down every name and statue — Lee, Grant, Washington, Jefferson, any American hero to the right of Harvey Milk — unless we think of a way that we can all stand together, whatever the differences in our personal lines in the sand.

I have a proposal for a way. It will not require you to change your mind about Robert E. Lee. But before you throw him permanently into the junkbin of history, the general may have a final lesson to teach us.

Margaret Sullivan, the former public editor at The New York Times, tackles the decline of local newspapers in her new book and explains how it is bad for American democracy. Oddly, she ignores how journalism itself has declined. Barton Swaim reviews: “Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that a Washington Post columnist couldn’t find a negative word to say about the practice of journalism in America’s newsrooms, but I thought perhaps she might give it a throwaway paragraph. Nope. Ms. Sullivan writes of ‘journalism,’ sometimes of journalistic ‘talent,’ as though it’s a natural resource, the same in quantity and quality at all times. The only question, for her, is whether all this ‘talent’ can find a place to exhibit itself. Right now, thanks to a set of economic circumstances mostly out of our control, Americans have trouble getting access to this great and noble thing called ‘journalism,’ but a number of billionaires and philanthropic organizations are exploring ways to keep open the ‘journalism-talent pipeline.’ I do not like to fault books for the things they don’t include, but allow me to suggest a few trends in the field of news journalism that make the work of selling it to ordinary Americans more difficult than it once was.”

Does Europe have a future? Scott B. Nelson reviews Renovatio Europae: For a Hesperialist Renewal of Europe. “Edited by David Engels, formerly a professor at the University of Brussels and currently a research analyst at Instytut Zachodni in Poznan, the book gathers essays by scholars from Eastern and Western Europe in what promises to be a series of books proposing new ideas for the EU. This first volume tackles what is probably the least discussed but most important dimension of EU reform: Europe’s identity and values.”

Gregory M. Collins reviews Greg Weiner’s Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln, and the Politics of Prudence: “Weiner’s concise book is accessible to the lay reader yet informative for Burke and Lincoln scholars seeking to move beyond stale interpretations that pit Burke’s ‘historicism,’ with its attention to circumstance, against Lincoln’s ‘natural rights’ theory, with its emphasis on the universal equality of mankind. Weiner instead invokes a notion of prudence endorsed by both statesmen, each of whom described himself as an ‘old Whig.’”

Sally Thomas recommends Christian children’s books: “Through the saint stories and retold legends of Tomie dePaola, we met Saints Patrick and Christopher, marveled with Saint Juan Diego at the apparition of The Lady of Guadalupe, and wept—at least, my voice sounded funny—at the death of the ardent little juggler in The Clown of God. We pored, too, over the intricate, gilt-trimmed, intensely colored illuminations of Brian Wildsmith’s JesusMary, and Saint Francis. Later we moved to chapter books, which had fewer illustrations but were no less works of art. My favorites from my children’s elementary years were the works of the mid-twentieth-century writer Marigold Hunt: A Life of Our Lord for Children, The First Christians, and Saint Patrick’s Summer: A Children’s Adventure Catechism, which is precisely what it says.”

“One of art history’s greatest mysteries remains the whereabouts of Frida Kahlo’s The Wounded Table, a 1940 painting created in the aftermath of the artist’s painful divorce from Diego Rivera. Considered the holy grail of Kahlo works, it is one of the only two known large-scale paintings created by the artist. The painting was last seen in an exhibit in Warsaw in 1955, and it disappeared en route to Moscow soon after. In June, Cristian López Márquez, a Spanish art dealer, claimed to have discovered the long-lost work—which, according to him, is currently stored in a London warehouse, awaiting a buyer.” Dealers are skeptical.

Finally, a couple of items on how the coronavirus is reshaping the arts. The Italian city of Cremona “has long been known for its fine stringed instruments. But now . . . its craftsmen face tough times.” Sergio Colombo reports in the BBC. In The American Scholar, Theodore Gioia writes that the move to online performances in the arts has shifted the “primary mode of engagement with an artwork from contemplation to interaction.” Is this a good thing?

Photos: The lentil and poppy blooms of Castelluccio

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