You’ve Never Really Taken a Math Course…

Critics of the classical and Christian model sometimes wield the universal certainty of mathematics like a trump card.  “Two plus two is four for everyone, always, period.”  Even Christians will commonly use this as a defense for putting their kids in a school that eschews their family’s values or biblical truths, with a sort of what-difference-does-it-make kind of attitude.  Well, let’s examine this a bit more closely for a moment. One thing that really troubled me the first time I heard it was that I had probably never gotten beyond the grammar stage of mathematics.  In a very helpful series of talks on classical and Christian education by Mitch Stokes, Senior Fellow of Philosophy at New Saint Andrews College, he poked some holes in my thinking about the discipline of mathematics.  In a message dramatically-entitled, “Mathematics: How We’ve Missed the Whole Point,” he piqued my interest with the following:
“What if I told you you’ve never really taken a math course?  You’ve never really studied math, even if you’ve done many, many problems…? Math is a lot more than you thought it was.”
He went on to explain himself by suggesting that the following is true for almost all of us (I know it’s true for me):
  1. We don’t know where math in its current form came from.  We don’t know the history or the philosophies that undergird it or how much of a religion it has been in itself to so many cultures of the past…cultures on whose shoulders we stand when we punch a problem into our smart phone calculators.
  2. We have learned little more than a series of recipes and formulas that – when properly followed – will produce the correct answer the same way, every time…even if we can’t actually tell you why the answer is correct.
I can’t really argue against this.  Until recently, I had never learned anything about the significant role mathematics has played in the way Western minds have made sense of the universe.  I’ve been too preoccupied memorizing the quadratic formula.  Isn’t that more immediate? Urgent, even? What’s more, I still have no idea how the quadratic formula actually works…or where it came from…because I’ve never gotten beyond the grammar of mathematics. That’s right.  I took college calculus, but the best I could tell you now is that certain formulas can help you determine the area from one point to another under a parabola.  Big whoop. Sure, I use plenty of basic algebraic and geometric principles around the house, but even that puts me in pretty rare company. No matter how sophisticated the formulas I’ve memorized, they still comprise only the grammar of math.  That’s not to say that my six-year-old should know geometric formulas since that’s grammar stuff and she’s in grammar school; remember that the “grammar” of a subject refers to the basic or even factual information, as distinguished from the logic or rhetoric of the subject.  And the grammar/elementary educational level heavily emphasizes providing grammar students with the grammar of the disciplines.  But I digress. Given the way we teach mathematics, it’s little surprise that students so often hate math.  Stokes suggests that we entertain what it would look like if we tried to pull such a stunt in history classes:
“I’m going to put up some dates on the board and I’m going to attach names and events to it.  And that’s all I’m going to do. And what I want you to do on the exam is put them in order. Okay?  That’s it.  And we’re just going to do this for twelve years.  And then you’re going to go to college, and we’re going to do more.  List more dates, events, and people.  And then [you’re] going to go to graduate school.  And then you’re going to do that again, and again.  And that’s all you’re ever going to do.  You’re going to have this humongous timeline.  And that’s all we’ll talk about in history.
“Now, do you think that would end up making you hate history after awhile?”
But here is his point: that is exactly what we’ve done in math.  We’ve given formulas and recipes with little background or analysis, and we wonder why students so often despise it.  The reality is that if we haven’t gotten beyond the grammar in our own classes, we’ve never actually taken a math class. Neither is it surprising when there’s little student buy-in in math classes.  I have a hard time imagining Aristotle asking Plato, “Yeah, but when will I ever use this stuff when I get out of here?”  Mathematics, properly taught and understood provides a way to make better physical sense of a universe that God has, in fact, created in mathematical order.  Perhaps the question that our students sometimes ask is more intuitive than we previously thought.  Perhaps the best answer is not, “because it’s your job to learn this, and you’re learning how to discipline your mind,” etc.  Perhaps it should be, “Because I’m teaching you how to better understand God’s creation. And mathematics is only an example.  The truth of the matter is that being true to a particular discipline, and getting past the grammar of that discipline means spending time examining primary sources and asking lots of how and whyquestions…and even equipping our kids to answer those questions intelligently and persuasively, which we will be our aim at Evangel Classical School.

It’s Something Different

Greetings to you all on behalf of the Evangel Classical School Committee. FYI, at some point in the next few months the Committee will officially pass the baton to the first Board of Directors. These emails will then come on the behalf of the Board, not the Committee.

A special “thank you” to all of you who attended the viewing of Trivium Sketches at the Weinbergs’ last Sunday night. We trust it was helpful and informative. There were a number of good questions from the crowd after the viewing, and each family who attended took home their own copy of the cleverly-entitled booklet Classical and Christian Education, by Gregg Strawbridge. If you were not able to attend, but would like your own copy, you may purchase your own via the link, or just ask me and I’ll see if I can provide you one for as long as we have some left. But you must promise to read it and share your thoughts or questions with the rest of the class. :)

Last week, you’ll recall that I sent a faulty link to the school’s webpage, so here it is again. That’s On the site, we’ve endeavored to answer some frequently-asked questions and share our vision, so I’d encourage you to take a gander if you have not yet done so.

I thought you might be provoked (in a good, thoughtful way) by some comments from Gregg Strawbridge, pastor of All Saints Presbyterian Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and author of Classical and Christian Education (mentioned above). (To be fair, there is more to the title, namely, “Recapturing the Educational Approach of the Past.”)

Strawbridge points out the following:

One can hardly think of education in the past without being impressed with learning and academic skills that far exceed our own. Pick up any book written before this century, and it will be a challenge to the ordinary college graduade because of the eloquence of style, complexity of sentence structure, and vocabulary. Even the common letters of the literate ‘uneducated’ in the last century stand out as supremely elegant. (1)

It’s hard to argue with this point because our own experiences only confirm it. Like most of you, I need to think harder and focus more intently when reading an old book. Now there are probably a few additional factors that play into this that Strawbridge doesn’t mention (e.g., those that contribute to the natural evolution of language; some verbiage is just antiquated). But generally speaking, it’s because I’m ignorant of the big words or can’t follow the sentences unless I break them down into small pieces. I’m a little embarrassed to say that, but it’s true.

In “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Dorothy Sayers pointed out that her generation was actually getting a poorer education that the one before. That was – to that point – unprecedented in history. Sadly things haven’t gotten better since then. And this comes as little surprise given that our approach to education has only gotten further and further from the time-tested model of our ancestors.

To be sure, there are other things at play here, including our society’s moral decline, but it is silly for us to continue to practice the same methods – educationally and otherwise – and expect a different result. We cannot reasonably expect for a downward trend in the quality of education to suddenly reverse unless we intervene.

Enter the classical and Christian educational model. Whether utilized at home or in a classroom, it saturates a millennia-old educational tradition with Scripture and endeavors to support parents in the rearing of a generation of worshippers who hone the skill of learning. It’s not a panacea, but it is compelling. And it is different from what most of us experienced in our own educational upbringing. If you want to know more about it, here is our resource page. You are also free to ask away; we’ll happily answer whatever questions we can to the best of our ability. (Oh, and “we” is the Committee.)

Risus est bellum.