The Last of Us: Rehumanizing Mathematics For A Higher Purpose

Sunil Singh
March 30, 2023
It might as well have been dropped off by aliens in a test tube on a beach one hundred years ago. The inert and sterile nature of current mathematics hasn’t changed much. We just have better technology and pedagogy. It’s like watching a colorized version of an old movie.


                                                                          "Humility, creativity, and exuberance are within each newborn child.

                                                                          Nurture them, protect them, and let them grow free, and they will save the world."

                                                                          - Mark Launer, Eternal Promise of Childhood (1956)

On March 19, at our quarterly Board meeting, I formally announced my resignation from my role as President on The Board of Directors at The Human Restoration Project. While that might appear to be a decision carrying some negativity, it is actually quite the opposite. In fact, the essence of this blog resides in departure from that role And when we depart, we are often in transit to arrive elsewhere. Often in my life, “arrivals” have been unknown destinations. Not this one. It’s the most detailed and colorful one I have had in my educational/personal life.

However, before I explain that, there is a parallel story about “quitting” and the impact it had on me as a math educator that I need to share. 

Ten years ago this June, I quit teaching.

It was a culmination of many events, but in the end, I just lost my desire to teach the mathematics that I was forced to, and in environments that were becoming more and more bureaucratic.

 I was also outspoken in the years prior about the quality of math education and the unreasonable attention given to my Province’s(Ontario) standardized tests, so the principal/math department made sure I taught only the weaker students in the lower grades. That actually didn’t bother me. I loved teaching those students that many teachers considered not their first choice in terms of who to teach. There was always a “fight” to see who would teach the high profile courses like calculus. I was getting a little bit weary with teaching courses like that, because the competition for marks would invariably compromise how the course was experienced.

In the end, I quit because I simply got tired of teaching inferior mathematics that was dead, disconnected, and dehumanizing. I was getting paid well, but my enthusiasm for teaching had waned substantially to the point of mild depression. So imagine how much students in general must despise the inert mathematics that is put in front of them–all to be eventually, and repeatedly, have an endgame of testing and grading.

                                                                          "Inert knowledge is not only useless; it is above all also harmful."

                                                                          - Alfred North Whitehead, Aims of Education (1929)

I struggled financially after that for many years, compounded by a math business venture, The Right Angle, closing down to a fire in March, 2015–two weeks before the grand opening. 

But, quitting teaching and seeing life through an impoverished lens allowed me to see the full value of mathematics as a place of deep restoration and redemption. So, in many ways, I got lucky. I got offered a perspective of mathematics that very few people ever get. It richly transformed me, and was integral in not only writing three books, but pivoting me towards ideas of mathematics that were lost, neglected, or marginalized. The last ten years have probably been the happiest of my life.

After the fire, I also began a long journey of exploring math history and numerous, untold stories of mathematics and mathematicians from all different parts of the world. That journey continues today.

                                                                          “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die,

                                                                          we can't remember who we are or why we're here.”

                                                                          - Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

But, it’s time to leave again.

In early March, in the span of a few days, I gave a keynote to California Math teachers and a virtual presentation to prisoners in Michigan on Pi Day. The keynote centered on my personal vision of mathematics, and these three pillars:

Not too ironically, all those pillars were met when the prisoners saw my short presentation on the history of pi. These are our forgotten students. And, not too surprisingly, after all the presentations to these inmates, 100% of them signed up for the Prison Math Project, created by Christopher Havens, also a prisoner. He taught himself mathematics to the point where he has published articles on number theory in math journals.                             

                                                                          “There’s so much to mathematics. Every time you learn a 

                                                                          little bit more, you are just in awe of how little you know”          

                                                                          - Christopher Havens

Havens has had such a transformative experience with mathematics, he feels like redemption has entered his life. The light that mathematics can shine has always been historically brighter for those who have only known or seen darkness–poverty, sickness, discrimination, and incarceration.

Currently however, math education is failing in all three areas I highlighted above. The quality of mathematics, while improving in some areas, remains a curriculum without the rich stories of mathematics and the history of all its people. When you intentionally don’t mine the thematic development of mathematics through all the cultures and time periods, you are going to be left with mathematics that is always inferior. Figuratively and literally colorless.

It might as well have been dropped off by aliens in a test tube on a beach one hundred years ago. The inert and sterile nature of current mathematics hasn’t changed much. We just have better technology and pedagogy. It’s like watching a colorized version of an old movie.

Guess what? It’s still an old movie(I am using “old movies” as a pejorative here knowing full well some of the best cinema is from the past).

There is no number theory. There is no game theory. There is no graph theory. There are no deep dives into statistics/probability/utility, and how extended warranties, insurance, and lotteries are shamefully skewed “games” against society. There is no math history. There is no consideration of current mathematical dilemmas(well over 500 unsolved math problems right now in the world). There is little mention of mathematicians, and even less of them as people outside their contributions. For example, the most important thing Blaise Pascal did was not in mathematics, but as a person of faith, who chose to live a life of poverty, so others could benefit from his wealth. He literally died on the streets of Paris, as he had also given up his home to the poor. On the day of the funeral, many of those that benefited from his charity filled up the back of the church.

Rehumanizing mathematics? We’re not even close. In fact, it’s time to give up on that flower blooming in the torched soil of today’s education–which has doubled-down on testing and appeasing those who believe in competition/performance for societal productivity.

Those that, for example, oppose the California Math Framework are unwillingly transparent in their motives–to maintain the class system of learning mathematics. Proof? Look at all those opposed. They all represent the ruling class of wealth and academia. The mathematics they push is as sterile as their objectives.

Which brings me to why I left my position at HRP.

I turn 60 next year. I have been in this math education space a long time. And, while there have been many moments of joy, the space has become toxic with the most class-based ideas of learning mathematics. When Jo Boaler, one of the most important math educators we have, and who recently shared her work with indigenous communities up here in Canada, gets rape and death threats–including her daughters–it’s a sign that the discussions are no longer about mathematics.

The discussions are about using mathematics for political and societal gain–for those that already have much. Mathematics has been weaponized in schools. I am tired of disarming.

I am tired of trying to put out fires. I am tired of having to push back against the politicization of mathematics. I am tired of seeing the stories of mathematics flat out ignored and seem inconsequential to the teaching of it, which is spiraling down a narrow, dark tunnel of cold functionality for students and teachers

So, by leaving my position as President for The Board of Directors, I can now devote time to helping HRP develop professional development in mathematics that is aligned to my belief of delivering higher quality and higher purpose math to marginalized and/or receptive communities–correctional facilities and alternative/progressive schools.

When my mentor and greatest math teacher I have ever known, Peter Harrison, retired from teaching twenty years ago, he lamented that mathematics was dying and was heading down the same road as Latin. I know you are thinking math is far from dead, but Peter was referring to mathematics that had history, people, and events. Mathematics that was alive, robust, and taught for its intrinsic and storied beauty. That’s what mathematics is. That’s what math education is not.

I am not sure how many of “us” are left who see mathematics like this. Maybe my voice isn’t suited for the current world of math education. And, I am very much okay with that.

It’s why I need to seek out a new space for reimaging what it could be. In the coming months, I hope the space you are reading this blog in becomes the brave new world of hope and humanity for mathematics. This is where you will find me. This is where I hope to find the spirit and soul of mathematics again…

"life's splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from our view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come."   - Franz Kafka

Sunil Singh
Sunil is an author, speaker, math storyteller, porous educator, advisor at Amplify, music freak and geek and Board President of Human Restoration Project.
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