Mathematics as a means for human flourishing

One of the highlights of these meetings for me has been the MAA Retiring Presidential Address by Francis Su on Friday morning, titled “Mathematics for Human Flourishing”.

Francis Su, outgoing President of the MAA, and one of my favorite people.

Francis Su, outgoing President of the MAA, and one of my favorite people. Photo credit: Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography

Su started by inviting us to think about who does mathematicsHe told us about Christopher, an inmate who was passionate about learning mathematics and wanted to pursue even given his unfortunate circumstances. The talk was peppered throughout with quotes from Simone Weil, philosopher, mystic, political activist, and sister to famous mathematician Andre Weil. She loved mathematics but felt almost incompetent next to her talented brother. So who does mathematics? Some people, like Christopher and Simone, are repeatedly given the message that they don’t belong and that they will not be successful in mathematics. Su’s charge to the audience is to think about a different question: why should we be encouraging people to do mathematics? 

Francis makes us think. Pictured left to right, (only the people I recognize) Matt deLong, Talithia Washington, and maybe that's Darryl Yong right next to Talithia.

Francis makes us think. Pictured left to right, Matt Boelkins, Matt deLong, Talithia Williams, and maybe that’s Darryl Yong right next to Talithia. Photo credit: Kate Awtrey, Atlanta Convention Photography

The answer is simple: mathematics helps people flourish and the practice of mathematics cultivates virtue. And related to virtue are five essential human desires: play, beauty, truth, justice, and love. All of these can be attained through the practice of mathematics. We can teach students to play by helping them DO mathematics (as in active learning classrooms); we can appreciate the beauty of a proof or result; in an era of post-truth, we have a duty to help people to see the world critically and carefully; we can develop a more just society by including everyone and being mindful of implicit bias and not keeping math an elitist subject; and we can show love for others by supporting and encouraging our peers and students, and creating community.

Su sprinkled stories from his own life, stories shared by others, quotes, and lessons throughout the talk, giving it a deeply emotional and human dimension. His voice broke a couple of times, especially when talking about injustice in mathematics. I think that is where Su’s talent for public speaking lies is in this unique ability to talk about high-level ideas and connecting to them in a deeply personal level. He is really gifted at this, and from the standing ovation he received at the end, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in thinking this.

Justice.To be ever ready to admit that another person is something quite different from what we read when he is there (or when we think about him). Or rather, to read in him that he is certainly something different, perhaps something completely different from what we read in him. Every being cries out silently to be read differently. --- Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

Justice. To be ever ready to admit that another person is something quite different from what we read when he is there (or when we think about him). Or rather, to read in him that he is certainly something different, perhaps something completely different from what we read in him. Every being cries out silently to be read differently. — Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

His final challenge to the audience was this: to find a student who is struggling and become her advocate (I love his constant use of female pronouns as the default).

I’m pretty sure I can’t do this talk the justice it deserves, but I just wanted to share my thoughts for anyone who wasn’t able to be there. If you want to watch a (slightly jumpy, sometimes sideways) video of the talk you can go to the MAA’s facebook page. Francis tells me he will post a transcript of the talk soon on his blog. (Update: There is a transcript now! This is a must read for all.)

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