The Whiteness of Math Education Will Never Be Changed Without Teaching Math History — Properly.

Sunil Singh
Jul 25, 2018 · 7 min read

Note: The suspected push back from the usual suspects in the math community has already occurred. Those folks who align themselves with Research Ed, some pedantic organization that thinks teaching is a laboratory science, and believes that every micro fibre of pedagogy needs to verified through clinical trials or NASA. All these folks are doing is advocating for a future of robots with schoolhouse mentality. The reason to teach math history, above all, is to make the subject more human — to talk to each other about other humans. Times tables?? Continue spinning on the head of a two-dimensional pin in Abbot’s Flatland. Everything that was once human is getting automated — ie. less cashiers, bank tellers, etc. We are spending less and less time talking to each other, trying to maximize our **saved** time for who knows what. Telling rich mathematical stories is not only only right and justified, it can maybe help stop the robotic ideas of tasks, performance, and competition that is dehumanizing our society…

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My favorite math history story to tell is about Sophie Germain. I am kind of gobsmacked that Hollywood hasn’t tried to make a movie about it. 1789. The French Revolution. 13 year-old female. Teaches herself mathematics with a cat-and-mouse game with her strict and disapproving father. Takes on pseudonym of Monsieur de Blanc to get lecture notes from Lagrange. Work eventually catches eye of Gauss, who has his own potential entanglement with Napoleon's forces. Germain reveals female identity to Gauss. Gauss merely writes the most beautiful letter to another mathematician.

We have had a few uncomfortable conversations regarding race/equity in math education. Notably, Rochelle Gutierrez’s strong assertion that white privilege is inherently tied to how mathematics is presented and valued in society. I am also aware of how viciously she was attacked on social media for her views — which, oblivious to the attackers, only underscored that there was indeed a problem with race/equity in math education.

But, the echo chamber of math education is rather large, and every revolutionary thought is eventually devoured by it, relegating it to the ash heap of “thought of the day”. I mean, what happened with this story. Is math education guilty or not guilty of the things Gutierrez cited quite strongly and passionately? I heard lots of support for Gutierrez in the math community, but I didn’t hear a lot of support for her ideas.

That is the difference. Many math educators were strong enough to stand with her. Few were strong enough to actually champion her ideas and put their names beside it.

I am not going to ramp it back up to where Gutierrez took the conversation. I am going to throttle it down to just saying that math education suffers from not so much being “too white’ —which can sound negative and more of a sensationalist sound bite — but from completely ignoring the global color/texture of the history of mathematics.

One of the most successful World Cups wrapped up in Russia earlier this month. For those of you who do not follow soccer, the British announcers are not only the best soccer announcers in the world. They are the best announcers in the world. Period. They pronounce the names of every single soccer player — from all the different nations — perfectly…and enthusiastically.

Before you read anymore of this article, watch and listen to the clip below. While the heart of every announcer knows the pain of English soccer and how a nation aches to relive the joy of 1966, the last time England won the World Cup, they always realize that soccer is bigger than one nation — that it is truly world spectacle that brings all of us together every four years. The excitement that is shared by the English announcer for Colombia when they tied England is beyond evident — it channels a spirit for seeing the beauty and emotion of this truly global sport.

Emotion and empathy are generally absent in math education. As such, so is the rich history of mathematics. As such, so are the beautiful details and colors of mathematics.

The predominant color of mathematics is…(cue sarcastic drum roll)…white.

In the top picture is the mathematician, Aryabhatta. Very few students would know who he is. Regrettably, there wouldn’t be too many teachers either. Ironically, millions of high school math students intersect his discoveries when they explore trigonometry or quadratic equations. Why do we not reference his work? Where are the the enthusiastic commentators in mathematics who champion the global importance of mathematics as they do soccer? Do they only save their voice for the cliched Canon of Greek and Western European Mathematics only? Most of the high school curriculum is, in a nutshell, 9th century Indo-Vedic mathematics — save calculus and statistics.

Of course, Rochelle Gutierrez was right. But, as piercing as her words were, if they just become part of the news cycle of mathematics, then we are going nowhere — fast.

So much volume, especially on social media, is taken up by math pedagogy. Great. Wonderful. But, if the pedagogy disregards math history — and all the cultures that contributed to it — then it is also disregarding mathematics. It is distorting the story of mathematics and it communicates to students that mathematics is an inert body of knowledge, created perhaps by aliens, and left in some hermetically sealed chamber to be discovered by white explorers.

If math history is not organically woven into the fabric of any K to 12 curriculum, then math education will suffer the only fate it deserves — disconnected irrelevance. We spend countless hours worrying about kids understanding fractions — to this day, I am still completely flummoxed by that — and close to no time folding in math history. Somehow ensuring kids can add fractions with denominators nobody cares about is more important than humanizing math education with the hundreds of artists — spanning every culture/civilization on the planet — that have contributed to its creation?

Every important musician or artist of our time knows the history of its craft. Every important band from the UK — The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who — was a walking encyclopedia of early American Blues.

So why is mathematics suspended in such a cold and lifeless state? Well, that was answered last decade by Paul Lockhart, and like Gutierrez, his voice drowned and got lost in that large echo chamber of inert ideas.

So, yes, carry on math education. Ignore the outside world. Ignore the fact that any adult wanting to learn mathematics now — especially interesting mathematics, doesn’t need you, as sites like Numberphile(which incorporate math history) are taking care of that. Ignore the fact that critical books like The Shallows and Slow have alerted the world that how we are learning and interacting with the world is not healthy.

But, this all a symptom of the larger problem, that math education — filled with great educators — still refuses to give them a curriculum that is relevant and colorful. It’s like giving great cooks a crappy pantry and poor cuts of meat and asking to make wonderful culinary dishes. For a time, yes, their creativity will work. But, eventually, it is going to turn into an exercise in trying to make silk purse from a sow’s ear — or, beef bourguignon with Sloppy Joe.

I am not sure who the tsar’s of math education are. Eventually, the trail leads to the doors of government. But, they should be aware of the fact that the idea of mathematics being “white” will continue to be true until there is an honest and concerted effort to let students and teachers know that mathematics didn’t begin with Pythagorus and end with Newton. Perhaps, in the end, they just don’t bloody care. Because, maybe in the end, math education is just big business — and having references to brown folks with weird names is not good for business.

The ironic part is, the business model of math education — not listening to the outside world — is how the final chapters of Blockbuster and Sears were written.

Math education doesn’t need a new chapter. It needs a new book. I would suggest starting here…


Sunil Singh is the author of Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics(2017, Rowman and Littlefield) and Math Recess(2019, IMPress Publishing)


Reimagining the learning and teaching of mathematics