4.0932 Multiculturalism: Math; Prof. Bernal Responds (2/78)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Wed, 23 Jan 91 17:45:59 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0932. Wednesday, 23 Jan 1991.

(1) Date: 23 Jan 91 08:41:00 EST (51 lines)
From: "DAVID KELLY" <dkelly@apollo.montclair.edu>
Subject: Math: Pythagoras or the Egyptians?

(2) Date: Tue, 22 Jan 91 20:04:29 EST (27 lines)
From: Martin Bernal <MGBX@CORNELLA>
Subject: Re: 4.0916 Further Looks at Multiculturalism

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: 23 Jan 91 08:41:00 EST
From: "DAVID KELLY" <dkelly@apollo.montclair.edu>
Subject: Math: Pythagoras or the Egyptians?

The New York Times (January 22, 1991) published an article describing a
plan for an Africa-centered high school under consideration by the New
York Board of Education. This school would enroll black boys for the
most part, and the majority of its teachers would be black men. School
Chancellor Joseph Fernandez has hired Basir Mchawi to plan this
experimental school. In the article Mr. Mchawi's proposal was quoted as

"One of the problems with much existing curriculum is the perspective
bias that is often imposed in texts that view European history and
culture as the paradigm by which all human experience should be

The Times then refers to the illustration that Mr. Mchawi used to
bolster his argument: "... schools teach that the Pythagorean theorem
was developed by the Greek mathematician Pythagoras. Mr. Mchawi
asserted that knowledge of the theorem existed 1,000 years before
Pythagoras, but that Alexander the Great sacked libraries in Egypt that
might have attributed it to Africans."

My reading in histories of mathematics (rather limited to be sure) has
led me to believe that the Egyptians were quite good at measuring and
computation but that there is no evidence from their mathematical texts
(the Rhind and Moscow papyri) that they were concerned with questions of
proof and the axiomatic foundations of mathematics. Howard Eves in his
<<An Introduction to the History of Mathematics>> is typical. "There
are reports that ancient Egyptian surveyors laid out right angles by
constructing 3,4,5 triangles with a rope divided into 12 equal parts by
11 knots. Since there is no documentary evidence to the effect that the
Egyptians were aware of even a particular case of the Pythagorean
theorem ..." (p. 47) Who is correct, Eves or Mchawi?

Is there any historical evidence that Alexander sacked Egyptian
libraries or for that matter were there any Egyptian libraries before

More and more I am beginning to think that historical evidence doesn't
really matter too much to the convinced Afrocentrist. He or she makes
affirmations, acts of faith in the dogmas that the ancient Egyptians
were black Africans, that they civilized the Greeks, and that the Greeks
stole all their knowledge from them. It is a kind of religious belief,
and no amount of evidence to the contrary can shake the faith of the
true believer.

David Kelly, Classics, Montclair State College, Upper Montclair, NJ 07043

(2) --------------------------------------------------------------32----
Date: Tue, 22 Jan 91 20:04:29 EST
From: Martin Bernal <MGBX@CORNELLA>
Subject: Re: 4.0916 Further Looks at Multiculturalism (1/35)

I quite agree with Professor O'D that one should use the scope available
for objectivity to the utmost and this is what I have tried to do.
However,I dont think that it helps to treat one's own work or that of
other scholars as unrelated to the society in which we are
operating.That is why I tried to make my own predelictions clear to
readers. I am convinced that claims to complete objectivity in the
humanities are misleading and that often scholars who make such claims
like K. O. Mueller and Beloch are far more crudely political than
those of us who admit our mixed motives. I can think of no historical
scheme more determined by politics than what I call the 'Aryan Model'.

This raises another point made by Professor O'D in an earlier letter.
He claims that as there is no scholarly merit in my work the only
interest in it is political. While I would not deny for a moment the
great political concern with BA, I don't believe that Classicists,
Egyptologists and anthropologists would all devote special sessions
of their annual conferences to BA, if there was no interest in it.
Whether or not scholars in these fields agree with my ideas-and many do
not-they are in intensely interested in the scholarly issues raised and
it seems to me that arguments and specific points in the frame work
of general ideas of the type I have had with Professor Muhly are in
fact the stuff of intellectual life and academic discourse.

Martin Bernal