Am I a mathematician?

November 16, 2021

There’s discussion these days on who gets called a mathematician. Part of the goal is to offer a corrective to an existing bias: the cultural image of mathematicians is woefully narrow.

There are a lot of approaches to broadening this image. I love Mathigon’s Timeline of Mathematics, for example, which gives a sense of how people from all cultures and places contributed to mathematical thinking throughout history. And there are memes and discussions out there to encourage kids (and adults) to identify themselves as a “math person.”

Some like to claim that everyone is a math person; others would say that no one is. (These claims are essentially identical, interestingly.)

I can be sloppy with language sometimes, but I also think it’s important to aim for precision. And our attempts to welcome everyone into mathematics can sometimes backfire. The reason? Kids can smell bullsh*t. Saying “everyone is a mathematician” just doesn’t feel accurate, because it isn’t. There’s a difference between inviting people to see themselves as mathematicians or math people and declaring that they already are by fiat. Is everyone an astronaut? A writer? A painter? A French chef? There’s some bar you have to clear to be these things, that involves doing the activity. And when someone says they’re not a math person, they’re expressing a meaningful opinion about themselves: that they don’t enjoy doing that activity. We can respond that they haven’t gotten to see what makes the activity worthwhile yet (“you’ve only been washing dishes – you haven’t gotten to make the ratatouille yet!”). But it doesn’t work if we just ignore what they’re telling us, and insist that the things are different without convincing them that it’s so.

Speaking of Ratatouille, that movie returned again and again to the phrase “everyone can cook.” Does that mean everyone can have a positive experience with cooking in their lives? Or does it mean, as the critic in the movie writes later, that a great artist can come from anywhere?

There’s a related question in mathematics education: what is the goal of teaching mathematics, anyway? Is it to have a population with a basic understanding of numeracy, who are able to be mathematically literate and have mathematics in their lives in small ways as it suits them, for fun or work or understanding their world? Or is it to find and train the next generation of great thinkers, who will push the field of mathematics (and related fields)  forward?

I’d argue that both goals are important, but also that the first supports the second. If a quality education in math is available to everyone, you’ll begin to see people choosing to go into the field—and creating new mathematics when you might not have expected them to—who might never have been turned onto it. But that isn’t the same as saying that everyone is, or should be, a mathematician. Everyone should be properly invited into the field, but we can’t force them to accept the invitation, nor should we. People’s natural inclinations and talents differ wildly. (The trick is, we don’t necessarily know who’s talented unless we properly invited them to participate.) But when we say that everyone is a mathematician (or a math person), I worry that we risk muddling the issue. To paraphrase another Pixar film, if everyone is special, no one is.

Which brings me back to my title question. Am I a mathematician? I’d say no, because I’m not trying to create original mathematics. I was trained to be a mathematician, but ended up doing something different. I’m also not a teacher, though I did that in the past. Teaching involves the massive responsibility of having students in your charge, and I don’t.

What I actually do is produce materials and ideas to support teachers and parents in the project of providing quality math education to their students and children. That makes me a math educator, or a curriculum designer, or a game creator. While I love mathematics deeply, I’m not a working mathematician. Just like most of us aren’t.

But I hope I can help provide support to make the invitation to students to participate in mathematics and find what’s worth loving in the field irresistible. And I hope I can be part of the project to create a population without fear of mathematics, and empowered to do it as much as they need, or want, to. I may not be a mathematician, but I’m certainly a math person, and I want to help invite as many as I can to see themselves as math people too. If you take a good honest look at yourself and the field and decide it’s not for you, I’m fine with that too.

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Deborah Peart
19 days ago

So excited about this well stated perspective! I’ve been saying it for years. Being a mathematician should be a choice, but knowing how to use mathematics to make sense of the world is quite different. Everyone deserves access to high quality math instruction and an understanding about how mathematics is relevant in our everyday lives. I am not a mathematician, nor do I want to be. I am however an advocate for equitable math instruction for all and hope to be a small part of the solution for the opportunity gap that exists. Thanks for this post.

Amy Tanner
18 days ago

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot as a teacher educator. I believe it’s really important for the preservice teachers in my classes to believe that every child they teach can be a math person, and should be given access to beautiful and important mathematics. I believe it’s important for parents to believe this, too. But in spite of teachers’ and parents’ (and my) best efforts, I also believe not everyone will end up a math person, and that’s okay. I tell my preservice teachers that not every student they teach will decide that math is their thing,… Read more »