Mathematics: Modern Society Has Removed Its Internal Value

Remarkable photo. A strange meeting of coffee and cream, creating a transient moment of the yin yang symbol.

I took that photo.

I took that photo 8 years ago. It was the coffee of my close friend and math mentor, Peter Harrison. Peter is also a practicing Buddhist. Four months after this picture was taken, I would quit teaching.

I had lost my balance.

In 2021, I am going to argue that mathematics, as viewed and digested by society, has lost its balance as well. One of my first articles on Medium that had some resonance was the one below.

A lot of time has passed since I wrote the article. Enough time to have written three books. Throw in a global pandemic — and the added dimension of an existential crisis — a complete reboot of everything is now on our agenda. And, maybe this time, we can address how we have shaded the internal valuing of mathematics — the wide variety of such valuing — into obscurity.

Everything that we do with mathematics is for an external output/value for society — for functioning in society. Even practicality in its highest state — and math practicality can get damn high — is no match for the internal value/potential that resides in all of us.

Sexism. Racism. Imprisonment. Death beds. Suicidal ideation. Concentration camps. As we have seen in this book, mathematics has been near the darkest crevices of life. Its humble offering of the tiniest shards of abstract illumination has been a source of refuge,distraction, comfort, healing, and hope. So much of the material world can be taken away. So much of our freedom can be taken away. So much of our health can be taken away. But the spirit of mathematics survives all. It will also survive this pandemic. And, the only form that will be acceptable — because that is the only form that it knows — is one that is buoyantly human.

Excerpt from Chasing Rabbits: A Curious Guide to a Lifetime of Mathematical Wellness(Fall 2021)

The power of mathematics is the personal journey that it can take us on. That journey might even involve math trauma, which is a direct manifestation of education — not mathematics. However, inviting mathematics inside, to our very heart and soul, mandates that we show interest in the stories of our students. First.

Any concept of rehumanizing mathematics begins with understanding the complex, often messy, and sometimes heartbreaking stories of our students. There isn’t another bridge that is going to get us there. But, that shouldn’t surprise us. Who are we serving? Who are we supposed to be listening to? Who are the people that define what our purpose as teachers.

Our students.

Currently, collectively, there is little energy being transferred in that direction. It’s all about students and mathematics serving society. It’s very little about students and mathematics serving themselves.

This is both unsustainable and unhealthy. To only work with half of our students and half of mathematics is dehumanizing. The only way to rehumanize mathematics is to value mathematics for its internal gifts, and place those gifts, with empathy and kindness inside all our students.

Anything short of that will continue the imbalance of mathematical and student value. Society needs wellness. That rarely comes from giving externally. Mathematics offers wellness in buckets. Regrettably, those buckets remain uncollected. The pandemic has given final notice to collect them.

What will we do with our last opportunity?

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Author, porous educator, audiophile.

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Sunil Singh

Sunil Singh

Author, porous educator, audiophile.

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