What Is The Identity of Mathematics?

Sunil Singh
5 min readOct 28, 2023

This past week was the Annual National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Conference in Washington D.C. I made the personal decision not to attend. Namely for the reason I wouldn’t find too much mathematics. That same reason is why my proposal for NCSM in the strand “Untold Stories” more or less got rejected.

My “untold stories” were about mathematics. They are the stories I have been telling for the past three decades. My identity as a human being has been profoundly altered by mathematics.

However, herein lies the problem. I wasn’t being specific about the true identity of mathematics. For example, equity — rightfully so — will have been a huge piece at both the NCTM and NCSM conferences. However, I have my doubts if rich mathematics of Africa would have sprawled out, creating buzzing conversations in hallways.

Mathematics of African Dance

So let me more specific. I wouldn’t find an identity of mathematics that is fulsome, beautiful, human, and driven by rich and complex history of its stories.

The identity of mathematics in terms of its own vibrant history has been shaded into obscurity. It’s feral nature has been tamed and domesticated by the cult of pedagogy to the point where everyone needs to follow prescriptive steps first and foremost.

The white board is more important than what is on it. The medium is not only more important than the message. It has become the message itself.

Pedagogy has allowed something as ridiculous like The Science of Math movement to have traction — that sees a further reduction of mathematics down to bite-size moves, procedures, and instruction for smooth execution of the classroom for data collection and measurement. Mathematics is simply an obedient, withered slave to a machine of compliance and order.

In almost Shakespearean tragedy/irony, equity — because it failed systemically expand its lens to include the rich history of mathematics — is now vulnerable to attacks by right wing media as being “woke”, not so subtley implying that anything “culturally responsive mathematics” is inherently weak.

Try understanding the complexity of fractals/computing/patterning of African dance. It would implode the empty heads of these folks. Unfortunately, math education, turned its back on math history and storytelling that is rooted in the deep and rich mathematics.

This is the mathematics that we — unintentionally I would like to believe — are so adamant about building student identity around.

We never even bothered to check in on mathematics — the very thing that we as educators want our students to associate positively and passionately with.

Who are we kidding? What student in their right mind is going to want to have anything to do with this representation of mathematics from adults who have only constantly tested them at every opportunity with emphasis on the most mundane and listless mathematics one could possibly conceive of.

We are so blind to mathematics, that we have accepted wholesale that the current K to 12 representation of it is the best possible one that children could ever see?

Not only is that a blatant lie and not only is that a lie we are comfortable with, it is a lie that profitable. It will just packaged as the richest mathematics. When clearly, it’s not.

Anything which can be homogenized and sold as the panacea of falling test scores and student engagement will be successful. Bad news is that students will suffer — as they have historically.

This passage at the beginning of Paul Lockhart’s “A Mathematician’s Lament” is over 20 years old. The lament, regrettably, aged all too well…

Worse news is that mathematics continues to be stripped of its awe, beauty, and wonder until it becomes only recognized as a cog or a wheel in the machinery of education. Because romance and beauty doesn’t sell.

Peter Taylor, Rabbit Math

What is written above by Peter Taylor — one of my endearing heroes in mathematics education — is, to be brutally honest, a dying idea in the parched environment of K to 12 math education.

It actually might be dead. Beauty is dead.

So, we want our students to have identity and agency with a corpse of mathematics — because we ourselves have lost the true identity of mathematics.

The romanticization of equity is great. Unfortunately, it’s missing a critical piece — the actual mathematics that students would be wooed and seduced by. Those words of dissonance — wooed and seduced — sound ridiculous in today’s culture and climate of education that is hobbled by an addiction to its own status and comfort.

We have over-processed procedure, syntax, and structure so much in math education, that if it had a smell, it would smell like formaldehyde.

It would not smell like this. The mathematical irony, of course, comes preinstalled.

Where in the hell is the actually bloody mathematics? It’s become more challenging than finding Waldo.

Well one, when you don’t prioritize beauty, it becomes challenging to find even a withered flower. But, the flower never had a chance as the soil was going to be poorly tilled with the tools of the testing culture of education.

So all this talk about student identity means very little if we neglect the true identity of mathematics, and not the one poorly cobbled together in school.