A Painful Truth

I was in middle school when the musical RENT was big. My friends and I were obsessed. We wanted to be just like Mark and Roger, living the Bohemian life of sacrifice for art in New York City. We stood in hours-long lines to get rush tickets, sang the soundtrack at the back of the bus, adopted No Day But Today as a motto, and swore we’d never sell out by working for the man. RENT was everything. RENT was life.

Gradually RENT fell out of my day-to-day existence, but even into adulthood it still held a special place in my heart. That’s why it was so painful when I read this article a few years ago. In short, the article points out that RENT looks quite different from the point of view of a working adult. The sell-out character, Benny, isn’t the villain our middle-school selves believed him to be. He’s a hero who tried desperately to save his friends from themselves.

Oh man, that hurts, I thought. It hurts because it’s so, so true.

The hard thing about reading the article wasn’t its scathing tone. It was the way it completely destroyed something I believed in for a long time. And did it in a way I couldn’t refute. Oh, it hurt. It really hurt.

I had a similar experience this week when reading a book chapter about equity in mathematics education. In a critique of the common rhetoric used to discuss equity, Alexandre Pais (2012) calmly and completely deconstructed the claim that students need to learn mathematics to be functioning citizens: “Mathematics is posited as indispensable knowledge and competence to participate in the world – the idea that through mathematics we become empowered citizens” (p. 63). But the idea that students must use mathematics in their daily lives, he said, is a lie we construct to conceal an ugly truth: “It is not that school mathematics is powerful because people use it in their daily lives; mathematics is powerful because it gives people school and professional credit” (p. 65).

Oh man, I thought. That hurts. That hurts because it’s so, so true.

When I read that sentence I had to close my eyes and pause for a minute before I went on reading. It really felt like a gut punch. Since that moment, I’ve been trying to sort out why it made me feel that way. Here is what I’ve been able to figure out.

First, I have been struggling with the idea of mathematical utility in everyday life for a long time. After years and years of writing word problems designed to help kids practice particular mathematical skills, I became thoroughly disenchanted with the process of working from mathematics to context. Most of the time that just produces contrived problems. For a while I was focused on working in the opposite direction — starting with contexts and writing problems that used mathematics to solve related problems. This was a fun project, and interesting, but also difficult. The truth is, there are limited professional and everyday contexts that use mathematics in a meaningful way — at least when the mathematics under consideration is the mathematics typically taught in schools.

So it wasn’t the first half of Pais’s (2012) statement that hurt. I had already come to the same conclusion on my own; I knew that school mathematics wasn’t all that useful in everyday life. But I made peace with that part by insisting that there were other benefits to learning mathematics. I traced ways that my math training has helped me to think more critically about problems and to cut through the noise to get to the heart of matters. Surely other students reaped the same benefits. Plus, I thought, math is just interesting and beautiful. Not every student is going to feel that way, but every kid should get the chance to discover whether they do. Right? There are reasons for learning school mathematics.

This is why I reacted as I did to Pais (2012). That strongly held belief was shot down by the second half of Pais’s statement. Sure, there is a reason to learn mathematics. But it isn’t any of the beautifully crafted reasons I held dear. It’s because facility and achievement with mathematics earns students “school and professional credit” (Pais, p. 65).

The reason kids need to learn mathematics is because it earns them credit in the system. Not because of all the lovely reasons I had constructed in my head.

Ouch, I thought. It hurts because it’s true.

My first defense mechanism was to think that just because this was the reason kids had to learn school mathematics didn’t mean it was the only reason they should. But I kept going back to the main point of Pais’s (2012) essay, which was the falseness of the narrative of about “mathematics for all.” Schools cannot claim to treat “mathematics for all” as their goal when the whole system depends on some students passing and some failing. As long as we keep pushing “mathematics for all,” school mathematics will remain a gatekeeper in education. In that sense, should is not any better than must as a preface for a reason to learn mathematics.

Ouch again.

Pais (2012) acknowledges that his points in some sense lead to a deadlock. What should we do? Just stop teaching math instead of trying to improve mathematics education? Put an end to schooling altogether? The sensible first act, Pais says, might be to stop acting. The best thing might just be to stop and think. I did some of that, and here are a few things I have to say.

One of the goals of my professional life to this point has been to help make mathematics education more meaningful for kids. Recently I’ve talked about how I think meaning can be achieved not through connectedness to everyday life but through connectedness internal to mathematics — by highlighting big ideas in mathematics. This line of thinking is not really in conflict with Pais’s (2012) point. This line of my work doesn’t claim that mathematics is good for anything but learning more mathematics. So as long as schools still exist and mathematics is taught, I don’t think I’m doing harm by trying to make it more meaningful.

A big part of my motivation for this work, though, is that I am deeply bothered by how common it is for people, children and adults alike, to proclaim that they are “not math people.” I want everyone to feel like a math person. Until today I held strongly to the belief that the reason most people say “I’m not a math person” is because they were never taught math in a meaningful way. Pais’s (2012) essay has forced me to admit that there is much more to it than that. Yes, in many cases, the idea that one is “not a math person” likely comes from poor experiences in mathematics classes. And yes, I still think the “not a math person” is a societal narrative worthy of change. But I think it’s important for me to recognize that “not a math person” might mean “not a school math person,” and to insist that all students should love and appreciate school mathematics is something that will only perpetuate inequity.

It hurts. But it’s true.


Pais, A. (2012). A Critical Approach to Equity. In O. Skovsmose & B. Greer (Eds.). Opening the Cage: Critique and Politics of Mathematics Education (pp. 49-86). Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

One thought on “A Painful Truth

  1. Why not some combination of hedonism, hoop-jumping utility, and utility for solving problems in life or at work? Math for me is fun. But I want a nurse who knows that 0.02 is more than 0.006. And although the system is rigged, individuals have to navigate the world as it is, not the world we wish we had.


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