Revisiting Democratizing Mathematics

Revisiting Democratizing Mathematics

Today we wanted to revisit a selection from a previous issue of Virtue. In an interview with Dr. James Tanton, Institute Director Robert Jackson Ph.D delves into to the joys of teaching mathematics.  

For many years my colleagues and I would stay after school to host an open house, discussing aspects of classical education with those interested in the community Usually, the conversation will begin with the rich western heritage of history, literature, and philosophy. Stories that illuminate the moral imagination, fairy tales that depict noble heroes, these are key selling points for Classical ed. But then I would get the question about our approach to math.  

Thankfully, I was familiar with Dr. James Tanton, a mathematician who has spent years as a math educator. I first saw Dr. Tanton during a professional development presentation. Having little to know math background, I had no expectations. What I found in Dr. Tanton’s presentation was true inquiry and wonder.  

Our full interview with Dr. Tanton can be found here; however I wanted quickly post some highlights. When asked about what is most fulfilling about teaching math, Tanton replied, “I love cracking the nut of mathematics for other people, showing them that the joy and beauty of mathematics is actually within their reach.” 

To the question: what are the most important features of mathematics that should be conveyed to children (and their parents)? He answered: “The number one message is that mathematics is a human enterprise and students are to be their fabulous human selves in relation to it… So, be bold and ask a question about what it is right in front of you.” 

This second answer gets to the heart of what a Classical education aims to do: understand what it means to be human. Part of our humanity is contemplating abstractions, which we often picture as a gray-haired professor brooding over a blank piece of paper. We want to instill in children a sense of wonder about math and enjoyment from that.  


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