Math Education: A Prison With Very Wide Bars

Sunil Singh
5 min readAug 5, 2023

When I quit teaching 10 years ago, I was married and owned a house. Today, I sleep on a basement couch of a rental home, divorced, coparenting our two teenage kids. I have done that for six years now.

But, I am infinitely more happy today than that time.

The simplest reason I can give you very much related to the the above quote by Ed Frenkel. I don’t feel like I am handcuffed to a boring curriculum. I don’t have to be on lesson 6.2 by next Thursday. I don’t have to have some mark breakdown of my assessment into asinine numbers ending in 0 or 5 — showing, without shame, the complete arbitrary nature of assessment.

I don’t have to hear the constant complaining of teachers about students being lazy, disrespectful, unmotivated, and incapable of doing mathematics.

My last blog was a decade-delayed “fuck you” to those teachers.

Do you know why I am really happy, though? It’s because I am mathematically free now.

Most of my teaching career, except for the formative few years with my mentor Peter Harrison, was a boiled cabbage stew of fuckin’ bland mathematics sold by Willy Loman at a Sunday Flea Market in a town with one gas station.

You think I am exaggerating? How about we check in on my teenage kids, who are now only a few years removed from parole.

They both hate school mathematics, almost to the point where they barely trust me as salesperson for the subject. Luckily, I have convinced them about the power and beauty of algebra, so there is some hope.

I have learned far, far, far more math in the last decade outside the bars of education than I learned in the previous half-century of my life.

I learned about fractals being indigenous to Africa. I learned about Sanskrit poetry being the first home to “The Triangle”(Pascal was at best the sixth person who discovered it) and the numbers called “Fibonacci” — discovered first by Hemachandra. I learned about the inspiring story of Sophie Germain. I learned about how fertile the time period of the 9th to 15th centuries were for Arabic mathematics.

I learned so much fuckin’ mathematics — on my own — that I was embarrassed by my own teaching career, punctuated by those godawful trig “application” problems where nothing is real and somehow the urgency to know the angle of elevation from a sleeping koala bear to an equally disinterested eucalyptus leaf(this was an actual textbook question) exists.

Soon as you put one of these questions in a textbook, you’ve pissed in the pool. It’s over. Students will know that the mathematics that they are being presented with is teeming with fraudulent interest/attention. Sadly, so will the teachers.

But, everything is out of their control. The system was built by “vandals”

And such, what has been produced, especially in the world of mathematics, are more vandals. Did we expect anything more from a system that fuses together marginal mathematics with pressurized testing and long term compliance for their entire childhood/youth?

Mathematics education is an academic bloodsport, and giving all students equal access to this is NOT my definition of equity — to create more clever vandals of the Earth.

Which brings us to equity. I thought, naively I might add, that equity would naturally be inclusive to also folding in rich narrative/history of all races, cultures, and civilizations. That we would want to hear these stories.

Uh, no.

Two years earlier, I presented this for the United States National Commission on Mathematics Instruction.

So, without too much surprise equity/DEI are being attacked in education in many places all over North America. Yes, sadly, even in Canada.

And math education NEVER insulated itself from the attacks because equity NEVER bothered to expand into what I thought was a “no-brainer” terrain — actual mathematics. Without it, equity now faces even steeper climb. Ironically, as it becomes even more crucial. But, the definition of equity has been lost, and is now shuffled into the deck of attacks from confident right-wing types to the point where equity and math is seen as “woke math” — really meaning inferior math.

Like some Shakespeare tragedy, equity is like King Lear, and mathematics history is Cordelia. Equity, generally speaking, rejected her

I spoke to Peter Harrison yesterday. He taught in the age where the word “pedagogy” didn’t exist. The thinking was that if you delivered great content to students and nurtured positive relationships with them, that really that was all that was required. He was the best math teacher I have seen in my life.

My visit to Osborne Juvenile Center was an unnecessary affirmation of that.

I am one of the lucky ones. I escaped. I freed myself through mathematics. I will now devote the rest of my career to doing the same with students and teachers wherever those greener pastures might be…