At first sight, the answer to this question may seem obvious: a casual reader might glance at it and give it a confident “no”. Even though this is the position that I take, I do believe that there are many more things to consider when attempting to answer this question. It requires an answer much more complex than the knee-jerk reaction one can have upon the first reading, given the many concepts it refers to.
First of all, the question is difficult because it immediately requires an investigation into the different Areas of Knowledge. As a result, we must evaluate each area of knowledge (Mathematics, Natural Sciences, Human Sciences, History, the Arts) and, after this, we can reach a conclusion as to the similarities regarding the dependence on culture between mathematics and the other areas of knowledge. Mathematics and History, being the two Areas of Knowledge with the greatest potential for evaluation, will be addressed last.
Natural Sciences, at least in the general opinion, are regarded to be relatively independent of culture. This school of thought, while not “wrong” in the strictest sense of the word, can be disproved to an extent. Science can be affected by culture, as illustrated by the Western hemisphere’s search for a cure for cancer.
The negative aspects of North American culture, such as an increasingly sedentary population and deteriorating eating habits, have contributed greatly to a sharp rise in the number of new cancer cases we have seen in recent years . This has resulted in a need for more medically oriented research. The factors leading to this (our social and physical habits) can be easily regarded as cultural; therefore, we can conclude that cancer research is a scientific endeavor that has been partially brought about by our culture.
The same can be said for Human Sciences. An example disproving the notion that Human Sciences are not dependent on culture is the study of economics. New economic models, business theories, and trade patterns are being established everyday because of how dynamic our global economy is – surely a trait of our culture. If all this is leading to the study of economics (a human science), we can confidently say that Human Sciences are somewhat affected by culture.
The Arts, clearly, are heavily influenced by culture. Whether it be the song and dance of a rural farming community in India or Europe’s bohemian and modernistic art museums, the arts worldwide are brought about primarily by the cultural interests of a population.
The Altamira Caves in northern Spain are a perfect example of this. The insides of caves where cavemen lived thousands of years ago are smothered with drawings of bows and arrows, deer hunting, and other cultural symbols representative of the Paleolithic era . It is safe to say that the arts do indeed depend on culture, and to a much greater degree than Natural and Human Sciences.
In addition, the way in which these Areas of Knowledge are dependent on culture are different. The Natural and Human Sciences are influenced in an indirect way. The Arts are a more pure reflection of a society’s culture; artistic creations stem from the creator’s mind, and the culture of his city or religion or country can have a great effect on the way he thinks. This is the principal difference between culture and how its relations to the Sciences and Arts differ; the Arts are a more direct reflection of a culture.
Now we can begin to address the Areas of Knowledge most relevant to this topic: Mathematics and History. The dependence of Mathematics on culture would be a subject that most people would tend to agree on. The expected answer, of course, when someone is asked whether or not Mathematics is influenced by culture, is a “no”. This is much like the Human and Natural Sciences; our first guess would be that they are not dependent on culture, but after some thought and through considering a few examples, it becomes apparent to us that other points of view are valid. The same applies for Mathematics.
We must keep in mind that Mathematics is completely man-made; it is not a creation of God or something that the world’s population inherited with the Earth . It is a solely man-made creation. This compels us to consider Mathematics an outcome of human culture. The rather “unnatural” creation of Mathematics should prove to be enough evidence that it is dependent on culture.
However, it is possible to escape this through a minor technicality: we are discussing the dependence of knowledge with Mathematics on culture, not the creation of Mathematics. It is fair to say that since the knowledge related to Mathematics today can all be traced back to the original creation of Mathematics, and hence it is dependent on culture, but for the purposes of this discussion, we will address the knowledge of Mathematics as an independent entity, separate from the subject’s creation.
The knowledge of Mathematics is something that we can consider independent of one’s culture. This is because no matter where the subject is being taught, the mechanical and theoretical aspects will remain the same; the country or language in which it is being taught has no effect on the content to be learned. An example comes from my own experience. After moving to Indonesia from the United States after 9th grade, I began 10th grade at a local international school.
The following summer, I moved to Canada. In the years prior to living in the United States, I had also lived in India and Spain. Throughout my relocations, spanning five countries over three continents, the cultures of the countries had no effect on the mathematics taught; the only variable was the difficulty of the course and the teacher. Mathematics is a pure subject, and the knowledge within Mathematics is not dependent on culture.
Someone may argue against me, citing language as an aspect of culture and claiming that Mathematics taught in French is different from its English or Swahili counterpart. While the language of the Mathematics certainly is different, it does not have any effect on the ability of a student to do a Mathematics problem in English. Mathematics is a universal language; and the knowledge of Mathematics is therefore not dependent on culture.
History is an Area of Knowledge that could fall into either category regarding its dependence on culture, due to a well-supported argument and one controversial example.
Firstly, it may be assumed that History is not dependent on culture simply because it is based on fact. Although it is a valid reason, there are many Problems of Knowledge that arise from this assumption. How can we know that these facts are true? After all, the facts we learn our History from are all results of record keeping – how can we just blindly trust the record keepers? Are we not to question any of these records?
Even though it is based on only one argument, and Problems of Knowledge do result, History’s position as a fact-based Area of Knowledge is a strong argument, and makes it a legitimate position to take.
On the other hand, there is an example that shows how History is affected by culture. The education system in Tennessee has long been criticized for teaching its students that the Confederate Army won the US Civil War, despite the successful Emancipation Proclamation that declared all slaves free (and allowed the Union to reach its goal). Even though the 49 other states believe otherwise, there is nothing to prove the Tennessee State Board of Education wrong.
It is simply a matter of their culture – their pride of the South, their respect for soldiers of the past – that results in this educational discrepancy between students who live in different states. As a result, History gives rise to problems regarding its dependence on culture, and it is because of this reason that History can legitimately be considered to be both dependent and independent of culture.
In this way, we can conclude that the Areas of Knowledge vary widely both in the extent of their dependence on culture and the way in which they depend on culture. Some, such as the Arts, are heavily culture-based; while knowledge in Mathematics is quite independent of culture. The similarities and differences between the Areas of Knowledge and their degree of dependence on culture are an intriguing topic, to say the least.
Courtney from Study Moose
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