North American Values Is The Tail That Wags The Mathematical Dog

Sunil Singh
6 min readAug 7, 2021

Winning has been on of the most entrenched ideas in North American culture. You can’t win if you don’t achieve. Even if you don’t win — or worse, don’t want to win — it’s hard to escape the culture of performance and production. That these things can be measured is no coincidence. In a society that values a person’s contribution to society first(if there’s anything left, you can then use it for yourself), measurement of learning and wealth becomes a measurement of status.

We are not interested in failure nearly as much, although sometimes we give lip service to it. We are not interested in pursuing our blind spots of information or finding knowledge to contradict a position that became calcified by being satisfied by constantly showing off our badges of knowledge.

We need to generally try to win at everything all the time. And even when we do, we feel empty. Worse, we feel exhausted, drained, and mentally stressed. Before we get to the current state, let’s try to remember a time — which seems quite long ago now — when many questioned Indianapolis Colt’s quarterback, Andrew Luck, for quitting football.

Two years later, things have only gotten worse, partially accelerated by the stress of living with a pandemic. Simon Biles. Naomi Osaka. Two prominent athletes choosing ME.

And these are athletes who love their sport and have devoted much time to it — and still, the toxic culture of performance eventually took its toll. 70% of kids leave organized sports by the age of 13 for similar reasons. The remaining 30% fall off somewhere. Even the elite 1% are not shielded from the mental health toll.

It’s just delayed.

Kids who take mathematics have no choice. They have to take it. They have to perform. They cannot quit. We test them constantly. They get reminded of their math struggles and inadequacies everyday for a whole decade. They are not students learning math. They are cattle learning that performing in math is important. Constant testing. Constant grading. Constant performing.

Shampoo. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

North American culture values not just the individual, but an individual that can demonstrate their worth with the agreed upon metrics of measurement. Mathematics has been pillaged for just that. The truly powerful and interesting applications of mathematics are absent. The contemplative mindfulness/wellness that comes from doing mathematics is absent. But, then again, it was never there to begin with — that would serve ME.

Generation after generation of showcasing mathematics in such an exhausted and emaciated form has many convinced that the subject is dry, closed, and all discovered. Mathematics, in terms of memory — that is if one even chooses to remember(most will/should not) — will come down to some tasteless bouillabaisse of fractions, trigonometry, and algebra.

Most students will quietly expect math trauma. Math education, sadly, will deliver on that promise.

Mathematics is not the problem. The unhealthy culture of performing and winning in North America is. A small part of the world in a tiny time line of history somehow controls of what is seen in mathematics and what is valued in mathematics.

Algebra might be the gatekeeper in math education. But, North American culture is the gatekeeper for mathematics.

Some people were a little shocked when I said that my book, Chasing Rabbits: A Curious Guide to a Lifetime of Mathematical Wellness, would be my last. Well, it’s not that shocking. I mean, what else can I talk about after mathematical wellness? Nothing. For ME, I have nothing left to say. I will still write another book, but it’s going to be about music.

I’ve spent half my life in math education. It’s been amazing. But, it’s also been draining. Fighting to teach math history. Fighting for justice. Fighting for equity.

For me, mathematics is gorgeous, weird, meditative, enchanting, poetic, magical, mysterious, and spiritual. How I see mathematics often feels alien to the earthly incarceration of it in school and society. Relatively speaking to the stunning beauty of mathematics, the treatment of mathematics in schools feels like a rented mule — serviceable for reliable.

I quit teaching in 2013, looking back, because of mental health. I hated my job immensely. Great salary, pension, and summers off meant nothing if depression was going to greet me in the end. I was rather poor for a few years after quitting. But, I was so happy. That happiness allowed me the space and time to find my passion in mathematics — storytelling. It allowed me to write three book and travel all over North America giving keynotes and workshops on that topic and related ones.

Opening Keynote for OCTM in October,2021

I am grateful that so many people/organizations have felt resonance with storytelling/math history/narrative. It is completely aligned to anti-racist math education and culturally responsive teaching.

But, I dove into history over a decade ago, because I was revisiting my first love in high school — history. I was “good” at math, but I loved history. So, when I started working for Buzzmath, it seemed like fate. They were doing math history long before it become an emergent idea in math education. They were doing it because the content writers loved math history.

And now, Amplify, whose K to 12 math platform will be available in 2022, is a company that values my advisory voice on ensuring that math history/storytelling is a thematic and coherent element in its resource. Just a few days ago, in New York, we unveiled a little bit of the platform to the sales team. The response was overwhelmingly positive!

How We Started to Talk About Algebra 2

While we definitely seem to be at some anxious crossroads and inflections points in math education, there is hope. I am proud to be on the NCTM 2022 Planning Committee. And, even prouder to have helped contribute to this expansive and human theme of the Conference.

It is no coincidence that these themes are being born in a time of chaos and mental health. We need to stay healthy. Not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. We need to redefine our values. We don’t have to look to far. We just have to look at mathematics — which is and always has been bigger than any on culture, race, or civilization. We need to return mathematics back to its mantle of wisdom, curiosity, and humanity.

We need to stop teaching mathematics for a moment, and let mathematics teach us.

It has a few thousand stories to share…