Mathematics does not get many holidays. One of the few and perhaps most popular holidays, which happened last Thursday, is “Pi Day”. Far from being entirely innocuous, it is often met with controversy. At issue is not the name of the holiday but rather when it should occur, how it should be celebrated, and if it should be celebrated at all. Some examples:
To be fair, debates about Pi Day are mostly just humorous banter. But as the old saying goes: every joke contains a grain of truth. In this case, the tweets highlight an issue about mathematics that go beyond Pi. They demonstrate how mathematicians and mathematics educators are often called to serve as advocates. Consider the following exchange, which anyone teaching mathematics will be familiar with:
Stranger: So what do you do?
You: I teach/do/work in proximity to math.
Stranger: Oh, I hated math.
In these scenarios, we’re being positioned into the role of advocates and, sometimes, the role of apologists. What kind of response is being expected, after all?
The same happens with Pi Day. We are asked, usually implicitly, to align ourselves with the holiday, actively rally against it, or ignore it entirely. In each case, we act as advocates for some position.
But using the term advocate in relation to mathematics is tricky. An advocate is usually someone who promotes or defends a group of people or a cause that has been marginalized or excluded. In this sense, “advocate for mathematics” becomes an oxymoron. Mathematics is not marginalized; it marginalizes. In conjunction with STEM, mathematics is a prism through which dominant ideologies express themselves – and not as themselves, but rather as the refracted images of seemingly more neutral concepts such as objectivity, rationality, and truth.
So rather than seeing math teachers as “advocates for mathematics”, it makes more sense to see them as “advocates for people doing mathematics”. Preoccupations with the digits of Pi is not just a disservice to mathematics but more importantly a disservice to the people who do mathematics. The mysticism often associated with Pi should be combated because math is not mystical and because elitism should be removed from the culture of mathematics.
So happy belated Pi Day everyone, in whatever way works best for you 😉
Written by Melvin Peralta (@melvinmperalta)