Review: Mathematics for Human Flourishing

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Mathematics for Human FlourishingFrancis Su, with reflections by Christopher Jackson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.

Summary: An argument for the value of mathematics in all of our lives through meeting our deep desires and cultivating virtues helping us and others to flourish.

I have to admit approaching this book with both fascination, and a bit of trepidation. I was curious for how the author would demonstrate that math fosters human flourishing. And I was afraid that the book would reveal the deficit in my rusty math skills, that it would be a discussion of inside baseball, with me on the outside, as it were.

Francis Su sets us at ease from the earliest pages. He introduces us to a correspondent friend, Christopher Jackson and to Simone Weil. Jackson is in prison for armed robbery, connected with drug addiction, who won’t be released until 2033 at the earliest. Simone Weil was the younger sister of famed number theorist, André Weil. Simone Weil once said “Every being cries out to be read differently.” As it turns out, Jackson runs circles around most of us in his knowledge of advanced subjects in mathematics, and Weil loved mathematics, and more than held her own with her brother’s circle of friends.

Su’s appeal in this book is that we read others, and perhaps ourselves differently when we think of mathematics. For too long, he contends, we have left math to the whiz kids who can solve problems quickly and the eccentrics. For many of us, math is either irrelevant or a memory of shame. He contends we are all mathematicians, and all teachers of math and invites us to read ourselves, others, and the practice of mathematics differently.

His contention is that mathematics fosters human flourishing. We flourish as we develop certain virtues, and our pursuit of virtues is aroused by basic desires or longings. Longings like that of exploration, such as how to explain the gaps in the rings of Saturn. Or the longing for meaning, such as the stories we may use to make sense of the Pythagorean theorem. There is play, particularly as we explore the interesting patterns we find in math, engaging in inductive inquiry, and deductive reasoning to explain what we find. We come up with shortcuts, and try to figure out why they work. We long for beauty, and discover it in the sensory beauty of a fractal, the wondrous beauty of an elegant equation, the insightful beauty of the dualities in math (multiplication and division, sine and cosine), and the transcendent beauty when we realize that math can explain the world. We long for permanence and truth and find these in mathematical ideas that do not change.

Math cultivates virtue as we struggle. Su gives the lie to the whiz kid who comes up with the quick solution. Real creativity in math involves struggle, the failed solutions that lead to a novel way of seeing the problem that yields the solution. Math’s power may be coercive or creative. The creative use of power multiplies math’s power in the lives of others rather than showing oneself to be powerful. Math can be used to include or exclude and may be a source of either justice or injustice. Math can be a source of freedom–particularly if it is coupled with justice and extend welcome to all. When this happens, mathematics creates good communities, not ones that exclude those who don’t “measure up.” Math sees everyone as capable of discovery in math. Suddenly, you have a group of people engaged in joyous discovery.

Above all, Su believes that love is the ultimate virtue in math as in all things. This is not merely the love of math, but the love of people that believes “that you and every person in your life can flourish in mathematics.” One of the beauties of this book is that Su models this in the respectful way he engages Christopher’s questions and desire to learn math. It is evident that he sought Christopher’s advice on the book, and includes in each chapter one of Christopher’s reflections. At the end of the epilogue, an interaction between the author and Christopher, Su mentions that Christopher will share in the book’s royalties.

When you read this book, I suspect you will agree that Francis Su is the math teacher we all wish we had. He reminded me of one high school teacher, Mr. Erickson, who made math fun, and was not above engaging in dialogues with his invisible friend Harvey during class. Su helps us to discover the fun in math by including math puzzles in each chapter. He offers hints or solutions to each in the back, but I was reminded of the math puzzles I used to delight solving in Mr. Erickson’s class, and as a kid. I found myself wanting to find some math books and brush up my math. He got me curious about the mathematical realities I could do well to pay more attention to, like trying to make sense out of the analytics on a website and what the patterns mean, or the correlation between voting percentages and incarceration patterns.

I wonder if others will have this reaction and if in fact that is the author’s intent. Even teachers can lose their “first love” of math, and lose touch with the desires that math aroused in their lives. Might renewal come with remembering, remembering ourselves as we consider the student before us,  allowing that remembering to shape how we teach? Su does us a valuable service in awakening us to the ways we flourish through math, motivating us to share with others the abundance we have discovered, even as Christopher now teaches other inmates the math he has learned, flourishing even more as he does so.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

6 thoughts on “Review: Mathematics for Human Flourishing

  1. Ah, Mr. Erickson! I was just mentioning him again to my family a few days ago. He was a good teacher. Besides “Harvey – the giant pooka”, I remember on the last day of class, we arranged our desks to match a computer flow diagram on the black (or was it green) board and we each would perform a step in the “computer program”. For example, perhaps the task a particular student was to take the number on any piece of paper handed to him, double it, write in on the paper and pass the paper to the student on his left. The center-front-row student’s job was to write on the board any number handed to him. As the session proceeded, we noticed that the person was only writing prime numbers on the board — pretty neat!
    As another interesting fact: My cousin was student teaching for Mr. Erickson for part of that year! My best recollection was the 1967-1968 school year at Chaney. (This is also where we held out 50th class reunion this past fall.

  2. Pingback: Reading for Human Flourishing | Bob on Books

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  4. I passed your post on to friend who is a professor of mathematics at a local university. He may not be aware of this book. I was tutoring a couple of his students, one of whom is my grandson. As that tutoring began I presented them with a brief paper I titled “The Spirituality of Math as a Calling to Godly Service.” The professor was going to share that with his senior math majors. Your review is now an appendix to that paper! And this book is going on my wish list! FYI: I used to help teach math in high school from time to time, and started out as a math major at SUNY Buffalo in the late 1960s. My life led elsewhere, but I never lost my love for the subject.

    • Thanks, John. I am acquainted with Francis Su, and he has a wonderful spirit. He is sharing the royalties of this book with the prisoner who contributed to it.

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