Why School? Part 4: Math, English, and Wisdom

My Dear Students,

In my last post, I promised to show you the connection between wisdom and what you do each day in school. I think the best way to begin is to discuss a couple typical assignments.

I have chosen two generally unpopular assignments: an English essay and a series of math problems.

An English essay does not on the surface seem to help you grow in wisdom. 

After all, perhaps your topic does not seem particularly significant–maybe it is a research paper about giraffes. You hardly think that you are gaining any real wisdom as you list out facts about these long-necked and spotted creatures and try in vain to cite everything according the ludicrous and exacting standards of MLA (an organization, by the way, of which you had never heard until two weeks ago, but which has now become your arch-nemesis). You might concede that you are learning patience except that you just ripped up your paper in frustration and stormed upstairs and slammed your door.   

Yet, I think that this very assignment is in fact helping you to grow in wisdom. Here is why.

1. You are gaining valuable practice in sifting through information to discover what is relevant and what is not, what backs up your point and what does not. You will be doing this for the rest of your life, only later on, the stakes will be much higher. You will have to decide whom to vote for based on research that you do on your own. You will have to sort through the news stories to find important information and to identify biases and misleading information. You may own a business–and most likely, you will need to do some research in order to help you navigate difficult choices that arise. 

2. You are learning that details matter. Attention to detail will help you become better at listening to others, better at giving sound advice, and better at discerning the truth. It will always be easier to skate past details–just like it is easier to kind of do MLA but not really worry if the italics and parentheses are in the right places–but if you follow that easy way out when you are older, the consequences will be greater. As a builder, taking the easy way out produces a sloppy or even unsafe house. As an accountant, taking the easy way out produces dangerous financial errors. As a parent, taking the easy way out will not only affect you, but also your children.

3. You are learning how to sort ideas in a logical way. Life may not be a series of research papers, but being able to put ideas in a logical order will serve you the rest of your days. You will be able to persuade people much better if you can explain yourself rationally. Perhaps even more importantly, you will be able to catch flaws in your own thinking more easily.

4. You are gaining important practice in communicating clearly. There will be times when much will depend upon your ability to communicate–when the right thing to do will be to communicate something clearly and effectively. Maybe you will need to talk your sibling out of making a poor choice. Maybe you will want to share your faith with your neighbor. And, if you get married, your communication skills will definitely help you to be a good spouse.

5. You are learning to be a person of integrity, even at a cost to yourself. In a research paper, copying your sources is much easier than writing your own words. By forcing yourself to take on the unpleasant task of putting things into your own words instead of cheating and copying someone else’s words, you are gaining practice in one of the hardest things in life: giving up what is more pleasurable for the sake of what is right.

My second example is a math assignment. Here, you may be thinking, there is no way that I can prove that you gain anything–especially wisdom–from tedious number-crunching. All the formulas and graph paper in the world couldn’t team up to do anything more than bring otherwise-fearless students to their knees. Let’s take a look.

1. The first way that math teaches wisdom is that it teaches you to be rational. Math doesn’t let you get away with a shred of irrationality: you can’t just sneak in a “2+2=5” every once in a while and have the answer come out okay. Unfortunately, decision-making isn’t quite so structured and organized; it’s a lot easier to let ourselves get away with little untruths, such as “Well, it won’t hurt just this once.” Math helps us learn that truth can’t be bent, and our decision-making will certainly benefit from such firm reliance on the truth.

2. Math teaches you to think abstractly. Have you ever seen “two”? You have seen the numeral “2,” and the letters “two,” and you have seen two of many different things, but the idea itself, the concept of “two,” you have not seen, because it is an abstraction. Life is full of abstractions, and making good choices will often require that we be able to think through abstract concepts and ideas.

3. Math teaches you to love order. Imagine math without order and predictability. Sometimes, you would do a problem and it would come out right. Other times, you would do the exact same thing and it would be wrong. Sometimes 2 + 2 would equal 4. Sometimes it would be 6. Such would be a world without order. You may dislike math, but order is the one thing that helps us get through it without going completely crazy. Order is good; God made order; God loves order. Loving what is good is an important part of being wise.

4. Math helps you learn how to solve problems. Sometimes life is like algebra, as much as we might wish that it were not. There will be many times in your life when you will need to figure out a solution to a complex or difficult situation, and the problem-solving skills you first employed in math class will be handy: list out what you know; solve what you can; look at the problem from a different angle; ask for help when you need it.

5. Math helps you to understand your world. You may never use math in your job, but a lot of people around you will. You probably know some accountants, scientists, architects, actuaries, statisticians, bookkeepers, business owners, bankers, or economists, and if you do not now, you certainly will at some point. Having a fundamental understanding of math will help you relate to these people and evaluate claims that they make. What is more, understanding math will allow you to hold your own in a world which is not always friendly to the ignorant.

I hope that this post has helped you see that, far from being irrelevant to your future, both math and English play an integral role in helping you become a wise person.

Of course, we’ve discussed only a very tiny fragment of all the things that you do at school. My hope, however, is that our discussion of these has helped you to see how to draw the connection between the practical, daily, tangible aspects of school and the goal of growing in wisdom and virtue–and that you will begin to make some of these connections for other assignments as well. 

(You may also discover that some of your work truly is useless, as it offers you no wisdom and no skills for your future. Unfortunately, this kind of useless work is far too common in our schools.)

Most of all, I hope that your school years will help you become individuals of great wisdom and virtue.