"I am America, I am the part you won't recognize, but get used to me." - Muhammad Ali
"History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." - Winston Churchill
"Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas." -
History Books and Probability Theory
Prompt: “Some areas of knowledge seek to describe the world, whereas others seek to transform it.” Explore this claim with reference to history and one other area of knowledge.
Before we begin…I have one very cliche question to ask you:
If you could meet one historical figure and ask them anything, who would it be, and what would you ask?
Go on, answer it!
Now… tell me about this person, is it male? Female? If you mentioned your historical figure to any random passerby, would they know who you are talking about? If you came up with a woman who is not Queen Elizabeth, congratulations! You are one of the few who even mentioned a woman at all. Last time I tried to answer, I could come up with dozens upon dozens of male historical characters, but if I tried to think of a woman, I could probably name five or six if I thought hard enough....and needless to say, most of them were white (with the exception of Cleopatra… you go girl!).
So, then comes the question, is it that women have not made any impactful changes in history? If they have, why are they overshadowed in history books? Who gets to decide which people we talk about in the classroom, and which people are left out? How does the way we portray history impact our future?
The knowledge claim that I am exploring states that “some areas of knowledge seek to describe the world, whereas others seek to transform it,” but my claim is that “describing” and “ transforming” are non-binary concepts that often happen as a result of one another, and that therefore, any area of knowledge seeks to define and describe the world, while transforming it in the process. Sometimes, this happens accidentally, and sometimes it may be intentional.
What does it mean to describe?
To describe means to tell, depict, or explain something with words. Simple enough, right? Well not really, because with description comes bias. In order to explain to someone what you ate for lunch, what you saw the day of the solar eclipse, on that trip to Hawaii, or what happened over the course of the last 10,000+ years of human history, not everything will be told. Some things may be forgotten, or perhaps there are no records for them. Some of them may be deemed “unimportant” by those telling the story, and some are left out quite intentionally (perhaps to keep the image of a government, or to instill specific values to an audience).
The point is: description is inherently biased, and in many cases, events deemed as unimportant by historians are ignored. Also, groups of people who have been oppressed may be completely ignored when telling the history of humanity to others.
How does history attempt to describe the world, and does it seek to do so?
We use personal accounts, historical documents, pictures (if available), and when everything else seems to be lacking, we turn to oral histories and narrations of events. It all comes together to tell a story of humanity. To seek is to actively attempt to find something, and in history, it is all about interpreting the past, and what made it be a specific way or another.
Now, let’s go back to my real-life situation
In an attempt to describe the human world to high school students, history books have been written from generation to generation. Often times, history is taught to make students understand why the world is the way it is, and who has shaped it out to be that way. However, history classes are also meant to give children a national and personal identity, as well as ideas on how to handle future political issues and what roles they play in shaping the present. The problem is that in many history books around the world, most significant women in history are barely mentioned, and when they are, sometimes it is not on equal terms as men. In a study published in 2015 by the International Journal of Scientific Research, social scientists in Kenya analyzed how many times women were mentioned in the five most used textbooks in the country. Its findings were that although the government had pushed for a more gender-equal history education, men were mentioned about 89% of the time, whereas women were mentioned only about 11%. More strikingly, when women were mentioned, most of the time it was in relation to male historical figures. When the students were asked about role models, most of them chose male role models.
In the United States, women are one of the most misrepresented groups in politics, ranking at 91 globally in women representation in politics. Many different sources argue that one of the reasons women have a lower political efficacy is their representation in media, books, and of course, history. The way we intentionally and unintentionally portray women in power (both in the past and in the present) impacts the way women today feel about being powerful. Not having enough role models means that future women may also grow up to think that they are not the ones who make history, and in doing so, it can perpetuate the lack of women in power who become remarkable historical figures. It is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy in which people are shown since they are little that women are not the ones who make history, and so biases against women by both genders end up making this a reality in many places.
History, by being told one way or another, and leaving groups behind or overemphasizing other groups, can transform the world or keep the world from being transformed. It can keep or change the opinions of people, and through that, influence their actions that will in turn change the world.
Side note: sometimes the way history is portrayed is not intentional, and people’s implicit biases end up having a greater impact than intended. With that being said, governments understand the power of history as both a descriptor of the world and a transformer that influences people’s actions. This is why you see governments blocking information about historical events that make a country look bad. For example, China does not teach its students great detail about Tienanmen Square, and even the United States does not always mention American Eugenics or project MK Ultra (which by the way is an inspiration to Stranger Things) when talking about history.
Mathematics… Description and Transformation:
In a previous blog, I talked about non-euclidean geometry and how by changing a few rules of mathematics, different mathematicians were able to create triangles that were greater than 180 degrees and parallel lines that intersect. Unintentionally, these math rules are useful in making calculations in spherical shapes such as the earth. In this case, mathematics was trying to transform the way knowledge works, and ended up describing a world that was already in existence (quite literally, it describes how math works along the surface of the Earth).
Ultimately, this shows that description leads to transformation, but transformation also leads to description. By describing a mathematical relationship, de Pierre and Fermat set a chain of events that led to probability theory and changing the world with it. But, inversely, by looking to transform the world of mathematics, non-euclidean geometry was able to describe geometric patterns that already existing.