I guess I have been doing math for over 50 years. Yes, I am on the back nine of my life. As my interest in the subject continues to peak in areas of math history, lost stories, and compelling narratives, I have — not so ironically — let go of what it means to be good at math. You could give me a problem, and maybe I could solve it in minutes with a clever approach. You could also give me another problem, and I could have almost zero intuition to even begin a strategy. Being a better teacher of mathematics means absorbing this daunting narrative. Comforting though, it has been the same primer used by every person who has curiously waded into the sea of mathematics.
Just a few days ago, I stumbled upon Anthony Bourdain’s Raw Craft, bite-sized 10 minute episodes that go deep with crafts people, who exude much passion, integrity, and courage to ply away at their trade. Every moment of every episode had a chestful of parallels to the equally wondrous world of mathematics.
The attention to detail. The years and years of apprenticeship. The willingness to be constantly learning. The willingness to be a student everyday. In the episode with Takashi, the Japanese Tebori tattoo artist, the word shoshinsha, meaning beginner, is brought up as an almost required mindset to be master crafts person. Are not these attributes and qualities which need to be embedded in approaching mathematics?
Isn’t mathematics years upon years of trial and error with ideas/problems with some needed repetition/practice? However, because mathematics is not approached as a craft, and more of a practical necessity and/or civic duty, the hours needed to be put in feel like work and not passion.
For none of the people on Raw Craft — some giving up corporate careers to squirrel away in niche hobbies — is their toiling getting punctuated by exhaustive and meaningless work. It is more than that. Their craft brings them joy, happiness, and wellness. Maybe there is something intrinsically human and purposeful to have your life nested trying to obtain perfection, but also mocking its existence. Thomas Keller of The French Laundry said as much on an old episode of No Reservations.
Our students and our teachers are human. In these challenging times of complete uncertainty, what we already possess — our collective humanness — is our most important asset. Luckily, it also the channel in which mathematics, in all its splendor and craft, displays its vibrancy and meaning. Talking about mathematics as a craft makes it more accessible, even just to marvel at those who seem have deeper inroads into its artistry of patterning and symmetry.
Mathematics takes lots of time to understand that failure, coupled with its remarkable history and beauty, are its most identifying attributes.
That should be tattooed to all of us. Being in the moment as a mutual learner with unflinching honesty with our students is the best that we will ever do.