James Tanton is a Hypocrite (and I am James Tanton, by the way).

I am James and I am a math guy.

I’ve done mathematics and nothing but mathematics all my life. I’ve devoted my career to promoting the joys and delights of mathematics. I write about mathematics. I teach mathematics. I travel far and wide to chat with folk about keeping the human wonder of mathematics close at hand in one’s daily teaching and thinking practice. And I’ve even helped found a remarkable global movement to transform the world’s perception of what mathematics can and should be: The Global Math Project.

You see, us math folk are deeply perturbed — well, saddened is the word really — by the cultural acceptance, if not pride, of disliking math and being unashamedly vocal about it. “I am not a math person.” “I can’t do math.” “Math was my worst subject in school.” “I hate math.” I completely empathize with the folk who say this because of their past emotional experiences with mathematics. But I do wish these tropes weren’t automatic culturally-accepted norms. As unprocessed statements uttered with such frequency and ease they so belittle and damage the reputation of our human and beautiful mathematics. Can we let go of these culturally expected utterances?

And then I realized I am a bit of a hypocrite.

“I am not a sports guy.” “I’ve never liked sports. Sports are just not my thing.” “I hated sports in school.”

I found myself making statements like these when chatting with the fan-manager of a professional sports team. Oh my! The chagrin! I realized after saying these things what I was doing and how terrible I was being. I immediately apologized for my belittling and ungracious attitude and acknowledged that I was doing the very practice I lament our culture does to math. That conversation was a wake-up call.

The truth is that I am nervous about doing sports. I did avoid doing them in school and I did have an unkindly attitude about them. And I don’t know why. My very own statements, I realized, were unprocessed, automatic reactions within me. I realize now I wasn’t at all practicing what I preach.

A Proposal

If I am hoping that people will let go of their unprocessed reactions and examine their own relationship with mathematics — I am, after all, advocating folk try Exploding Dots for Global Math Week 2018 — then I should examine my own relationship with sports and try something very much out of my own comfort zone.

I propose an exchange program:

Is there a sports team out there that would like to teach me their fabulous game for an hour? In exchange, I’ll give a session on fabulous Exploding Dots for an hour.
The left image (of me) is thanks to the Mathematical Association of America. The right image is attributed to Thomas Grollier [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

Okay. I admit this rings of a publicity stunt, and it would be. But I have two things to say in response to that. My emotions, my trepidation, to trying a serious sports activity will be genuine! And even if there is some publicity associated with this, can that not only be good? Perhaps a united public effort will propel the message that one should, and can, examine one’s unprocessed reactions to activities and despite genuine hesitation, take an active step forward nonetheless and grow from a new experience.

Can representatives from math and representatives from sports across the nation pair together, take part in an exchange, and share the experience with the world? Can we promote a new cultural attitude to math and a new cultural attitude to sports, both communities, side by side?

Genuine emotional hesitations to experiences are fine and one can talk about them. But let’s work to make our impulse utterances about unfamiliar activities, all activities, genuine, helpful, positive, and uplifting too.

End Notes

  1. My thanks to Hilary Kreisberg, Matthew Beyranevand, Sunil Singh, and Chris Brownell for their feedback on this immodest post.
  2. Can we indeed start a global movement: videos, photos, commentary of people letting go of their unprocessed utterances and trying something new? Reach out to me at tanton.math@gmail.com if you have something to share.