Mathematics Education: Humanity or Bust

Wrote this prior to starting my final book and the global pandemic. I would say we are on DEFCON 1 for Humanity in Mathematics…Humanity in Education. Period. I have made no edits. Only wanted to see how the urgency of this moral imperative has been ramped up two years later…

About a month or so ago, I was asked by the founding members of the Human Restoration Project, Chris McNutt and Nick Covington, to be part of their Board of Directors. Considering their simple and profound mission, it was a no-brainer.

The Human Restoration Project (HRP) is a non-profit organization aimed at transforming school systems, restoring students as human beings rather than a vessel for standards.

The picture I used for this article was a flight of beers sitting on a table on a nice sunny day. For many of you reading this, it encapsulates many moments of simple happiness — warmth, light, friends, and some damn fine beer. If you have a group of friends of various interests, what are the topics of light conversation that come up? Movies, books, music, politics, environment, sports, science, history, travel, the arts, etc? These are all topics that cut a wide swath through general society. While we might have engaged in many of these ideas during school, our interests continued outside the time and walls of education facilities. And, there were plenty of places and space to affirm that what we learned was well-soaked in social and cultural mores…

Except mathematics.

Even with two books under my belt, more or less screaming that mathematics is beyond its pale institutionalized portrayal, any mention of math with my friends still almost immediately triggers things like who was good at math/why I didn’t like math — only solidifying my point about the heavy institutional feel of the way math is absorbed and digested by general society.

It is no surprise I met my co-author of my book, and now really good friend, first over a flight of beers. We chit-chatted about lot of things. All lightly woven with our earnest ramblings about the beauty, wonder, and soul of mathematics. In other words, its shining humanity.

Except, when it comes to classrooms, the illumination of that humanness — which includes a non-contradictory mix of struggle, confusion, failure, and defeat with awe, joy, and love — has been quite dark.

Throw in a slavish devotion to bloated accountability of standardized testing — the historic antidote for developing any lifetime curiosity for math — heavy language of pedagogy, and constant/fatiguing bench marking, and that darkness has led to societal blindness.

But, humanity isn’t easy to find these days. It has generally left music.

Freddie Mercury would have been 73 today. Music brought humanity to him — and he gave it back n-fold to all of us.

Mathematics deserves this kind of audience and adulation. It needs to be celebrated among the masses; not tested to sort out the elite. By the time most students are finished with mathematics in high school, their pilgrimage towards anything poetic or aesthetically pleasing falls disastrously short — many falling into the abyss of trigonometry. And, even the ones that succeeded with the A’s and gold stars, many of them only will see themselves as proficient and capable — with few having any inkling to wander in the great mathematical unknown. The thirst, if it even was there, is gone.

As such, mathematics while heavily respected by society, is generations away from making it to the beach, brunch, or bar as just regular conversation(which could make a good book…someday).

Mathematics is full of humanity. Math education, not so much. Well, to be fair, most of education is deprived of humanity — while steroidal-like devotion to testing and meeting inert expectations is fed like a king. A decade ago, there was almost very little push back to to this behemoth and tired model of learning. Now there are so many grassroots educational initiatives pushing with a force that goes beyond questioning and into construction.

I am excited to see what lies ahead with The Human Restoration Project. We are in it for the long haul. Math education has to remember that it has only been around a fraction of the time of mathematics. Math education also has to take heed that so many revolutionary ideas in education are swirling throughout classrooms and schools all over the world, emancipating the thinking and curiosity of children everywhere.

Math education is not only capable of participating in this crucial journey, it has all the potential to lead it — from stagnation to salvation…and beyond.

Until then, I will pour my beer at the table, take a satisfying sip, and dream of the day I can sit around with a group of kindred spirits of various backgrounds, interests, and occupations, and toast to the shivering brilliance that is mathematics.

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Sunil Singh

Sunil Singh

Author, porous educator, audiophile.