What does it mean to be a “mathematician”?

What does it mean to be a “mathematician”?  What does it mean to identify oneself as such?

During the last twenty plus years as a mathematics educator, I feel as if I have thought a lot about these two questions.  However, I learned recently that I have not thought about them nearly as much about them as I might have supposed.

During a recent book discussion, I was asked to consider the question, “Do you consider yourself to be a mathematician?”  Without much thought, I raised my hand in the “no” group – a response which might surprise some people reading this and which also surprised a few of my colleagues in the room.

In the immediate and later discussion of this question that followed, I found myself challenged to articulate why I do not tend to identify myself as a “mathematician”.  One idea that came to mind fairly readily is that I know that I associate this word with people whom we might also call “research [or ‘career’ or ‘professional’] mathematicians” – that is, people who make their living exploring mathematical ideas in (often) a formal way.  I actually made an intentional career choice toward the end of my undergraduate program not to continue with graduate study in mathematics because I was very passionate about mathematics education in K-12.  And, to be honest, I found that even though I was doing well in my mathematics classes (“grade-wise”), I had no desire to continue in what I felt would be even more abstract, theoretical mathematics.  I believed that I was capable (as did the mathematics department); I simply chose not to do so.

However, I am engaged in an active community of mathematics educators who believe, as I firmly do, that ALL students should have equal access to mathematics as a discipline.  We must stop marginalizing students (which happens in the vast majority of classrooms in many different, often unintended ways), and we must intentionally include, engage, and empower every student.  Students should leave mathematics classrooms with rich understandings as well as belief in the value of their own thinking and the extent of their own potential.  Students should develop mathematical habits of mind that they can apply anywhere, anytime, throughout the rest of their lives.

So, one might ask – as I was asked – does the description above not constitute the definition of a “mathematician”?  Don’t we want all students, all people, to consider themselves mathematicians? 

I found myself struggling to answer this question – simply from my own perspective, let alone from the perspective of every other human being.  I commented that I would never tell a group of students that I don’t consider myself to be a mathematician.  Still, I have explained to students many times that I don’t engage in mathematics exploration as my primary career focus, but that there are many people from all backgrounds who do!  Without question, I want all students to believe that they can be “career mathematicians” or that they can choose any careers that interest them.  And I also want them to believe that they can think mathematically, apply mathematical principles, and enjoy mathematics in countless ways in their own lives.  But does this mean that I personally should identify as a mathematician?

In thinking more about this, I considered the word “teacher”.  Many professional educators feel a bit bothered when members of the general public who do not work in schools seem to imply that anyone can be a “teacher” if you find a way to teach people something.  Of course, in this sense, anyone *can* truly be a “teacher”.  But we do mean something different when we talk about professionals who have committed years to developing as teachers, both through experience and through continued formal learning.  There seems to be a parallel here with the word “mathematician”; perhaps this is why I am not sure that I feel comfortable identifying myself as a mathematician.

Further, I recognized after the book discussion that I have never felt as if identifying as a “mathematician” was out of reach for me; I was always encouraged by teachers, professors, family, and friends to pursue my mathematical interests.  That is, it is entirely of my own choosing that I don’t identify this way (caveat: see the next paragraph).  In contrast, for many people who have felt left out of mathematics, being able to finally identify this way – and to help young people to do so – could feel incredibly empowering, and I would never want to deny anyone that opportunity.  I don’t think I would ever say to someone, “You are not a mathematician.”  If a person feels like a “mathematician” because they are thinking mathematically, then more power to them – truly!

Another thought – since the idea of a “mathematician” has traditionally been intimidating to many people, perhaps I have avoided identifying myself this way in order not to appear as if I am placing myself in a position of power or privilege.  But if this is at all the case, it has been entirely subconscious!

So, what has this resolved for me?  Well… let’s say that we do define “mathematician” as any person who thinks mathematically and applies mathematical principles for many purposes on a daily basis.  If that is the case, then I can agree to identify myself that way; after all, proceeding from a definition is a very mathematical thing to do!  But perhaps, alternately, we could consider the use of some adjectives to accompany the word – “everyday”, “career" – what are other possibilities?  How can we include and celebrate everyone equitably in this discipline while allowing people to choose words that they feel best identify themselves?  So, are YOU a mathematician?  What are your thoughts?   

© Summit Mathematics Education Enterprises, LLC 2014