Why Study Math?
There are a few answers to this question, some more obvious than others. We study and practice mathematics because it is useful for everyday activities like calculating the tip based on the percentage of the bill, or measuring the length of wood before cutting it. But there is also a deeper reason why we study mathematics, and that is because it is an activity inherently worth doing, just like playing the violin or drawing in a sketchbook.
Francis Su, the former president of the Mathematical Association of America, wants to convince us that studying and practicing mathematics is a path to building virtues, which lead to a flourishing life. In a series of speeches and publications, Su draws from ancient philosophers like Aristotle who understood that “people flourish when they exercise virtue.” Su invites us to see how mathematics, as a core component of a liberal arts education, can foster growth in virtue, which is a benefit to ourselves and a benefit to everyone around us.
Su always begins his reflections by introducing his audience to his friend Christopher, an inmate at a federal prison serving a 30 year sentence. The two became pen pals, and over the years, Christopher has sought Su’s guidance as he studies increasingly advanced mathematics in prison. For Christopher, math is not simply a distraction or something to fill up the time. Instead, math provides him with a source of profound meaning, allows him to achieve goals, and helps him develop as a person. In other words, math is helping Christopher to become a better person.
How Can Studying Math Build Virtue?
Francis Su’s friendship with Christopher has led Su to reflect concretely on how studying math builds virtue. The process of struggling with a problem, while trusting that there is a knowable answer, leads us to exercise hope that truth is attainable and strengthens the perseverance and grit required to solve the problem. Because mathematics is external and (mostly) objective, it requires us to submit to the discipline itself in order to progress, and that fosters both honesty and humility. As we advance in our understanding of mathematics, we can begin to see all kinds of unexpected patterns. This attentiveness can lead us to make all sorts of connections to the world around us, for example, seeing the Fibonacci sequence in flowers and seashells. In making these connections, the beauty of math can foster gratitude for the intelligibility of the world.
Math and Human Desires
Su agrees with classical thinkers like Plato and Augustine that both genuine learning and virtue are powered by desire. We act according to what we love, and what we love in turn shapes the kind of person we become. Su highlights five core human desires that mathematics can tap into: the desire to play, to perceive beauty, to understand truth, to render justice, and to express love. The best education helps to cultivate these desires while channeling them away from ignoble ends (like feeding the ego by winning competitions) and toward noble purposes such as using our knowledge to serve others. Christopher exemplifies this by using his math knowledge to tutor his fellow inmates and help them earn their GEDs.
Mathematics is useful for all sorts of practical goals. Su helps us remember that beyond its usefulness, the study of mathematics invites us into that deeper, sacred work, known as contemplation. Plato famously said that all philosophy is born in wonder, and mathematics shows us that the world truly is a wondrous place.
Here’s a 5-minute speech from Francis Su that outlines his thinking on math and virtue.
Su has also written an excellent book on this subject, titled Mathematics for Human Flourishing. Each chapter considers a different virtue, and Su interweaves his reflection with insights from personal experience as well as insights from thinkers like Simone Weil. At the end of each chapter, Su provides an optional mathematical puzzle that loosely connects to the theme of the chapter. Some of these puzzles are harder than others, and if you get stuck, there are hints as well as the solutions in the back of the book.