Classical Mathematics: Engendering a Love of Learning

A reflection by Sara Rico, Professor of Mathematics and Theology

I was reading the Introduction to A Mathematician’s Apology, by the renowned mathematician G.H. Hardy, when I came across the following description of testing at the University of Cambridge in England:

“It was an examination in which the questions were usually of considerable mechanical difficulty – but unfortunately did not give any opportunity for the candidate to show mathematical imagination or insight or any quality that a creative mathematician needs… Hardy found himself caught in this system. He was to be trained as a racehorse, over a course of mathematical exercises which [even] at nineteen he knew to be meaningless.”

Too many students in the last 150 years have had a similar experience in mathematics. No wonder so many adults claim they “hated math in high school” or that they “don’t remember anything from high school math.” Something about the way math is typically taught in the modern world is not getting the job done.

We want something different for our students. We want mathematical education to be a humane process– not torture. We want mathematics to engender a love for learning. We want mathematics to prepare our children for creative and pragmatic thinking, for enduring understanding. We want mathematics to help teach our students to think, discriminate, speak and write; to perceive the inner connecting principles of the universe; to contemplate those relationships. I truly believe that achieving all of these desired ends in mathematics calls for a return to a classical mathematical education– more particularly– a classical, Christian mathematical education.

A classical approach to mathematics draws students to discover not just “what the answer is,” but “why that is the answer.” A classical approach asks the students to reason through a problem instead of just being told how to find the answer. This moves from just crunching numbers to discovering patterns, developing not just arithmetic and computational skills but also a power of mathematical reasoning. It is then that students are able to both grasp the utility of mathematics and, more importantly, catch a glimpse of the beauty of mathematics.

Students retain the ability to reason through a complex problem much longer than they retain a formula they once memorized. Developing the ability to reason mathematically and discover patterns proves to be much more enduring than memorizing steps to take. It is also much more enjoyable! As beings created in the image of God, through the Word of God, the logos, we desire to reason, to understand, to discover, to delight in beauty and order. Of all of God’s creation, the discovery of mathematical patterns in the created world belongs to us alone as humans; mathematical patterns are accessible to our reason. Mathematics reveals God to us, and it does more than reveal “that he is a God of order” but how He orders and creates– which tells us quite a bit about Him and His nature.

The effects of such an education should be felt throughout all spheres of life, for all truth is God’s Truth. The same Word, the logos, that speaks to us in Scripture is the Word, the logos, that spoke creation into being and ordered the universe. A classical, Christian mathematical education ultimately should grow in us a passion for Jesus Christ. May we be ever drawn to the beauty of the Logos, the Word, through whom the Creator ordered the world so that we might better know, love, and serve Him.