Math for the End of the World (Part I): Rising Seas, Hope, and Math Education

…or, Eschatonimatics? Apocalyptic Curves? Oh these are truly terrible.

When I last wrote about the PBL method of teaching math, I said that I often thought of this approach as Peoples’ Math (for it’s non-hierarchical structure emphasizing co-creation) and as Not Knowing Math (for it’s emphasis on students producing, rather than absorbing rotely, the math — and the necessity for patience and openness with the struggle to know something for one’s self).

I also think of it as Math for the End of the World, and I think of it this way more often than the other two.

A word or two about what I mean about the End of the World.

When I think about the end of the world, I do not have the literal reading of John’s Apocalypse in mind (though my thought and that text are not as divergent as it might appear at first glance), and I’m not touching on the question of Christian vs. non-Christian, sin vs. salvation, justice vs. mercy, and so on. No — for me, the End of the World is more mundane and less dramatic than that (at least in the single-event sense), and can be described in far greater detail than Revelation expresses. This particular End represents such an unusual and existential crisis to us that it seems to require a different way of thinking together as a human species, a different relationship to the biosphere to which we owe our entire existence, and so requires a departure from our business-as-usual assumptions about economy, industry, politics — and education, including math education.

The End of the World I’m talking about is human-produced, carbon-emission-driven global warming. It won’t destroy the planet in raw physical terms, and it likely won’t be a sudden confrontation with dramatic change, but it will radically alter that human-constructed habitat, the World. A better phrase for it would be the End of History, and this makes more explicit that what we’ve been doing is going to have to be radically different from what we do next, after some point at which everything we’ve come to assume about the Earth’s providence gets thrown into question.

As a wayward student of environemental engineering, and a waywayward student of Christian theology, it might not come as a surprise that I think about my current work in math education through this lens. Climate change presents an existential crisis, one that offers not just a personal end but an Ultimate End — all of humanity is threatened, and this inspires reflection in any and all fields of acitivty.

I first came across this kind of reflection in Roy Scranton’s essay in the Times, Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene. Scranton, an English professor and writer, is an Iraq War vet, so his lens compared the day-to-day threat of navigating the roads of occupied Baghdad to the broader, inescapable threat of rising seas and more severe weather patterns (i.e. Katrina). The connnection is particularly salient — the Pentagon has been pointing out the destabilizing potential of global climate change, as Scranton discusses. But he further develops the idea that this crisis has material and political consequences but also philosophical ones — confronting these changes, we ask what does it means to die? This leads inevitably to the question, what does it mean to live? He presents this as a fundamentally philosophical, humanistic question, one that is as confounding and as likely to capture our anxious attention as how to keep saltwater out of New York City’s very vulnerable subway tubes.

The Janus question of “how to die/how to live” first struck me when working as a hospice chaplain. Patients facing death reflect on the only thing they can in light of the ultimate: their life. In that context, I did not consider this process philosohical (though it can be) so much as spiritual and theological.

The questions are: how do we make meaning in the face of the ultimate, that which transcends but still participates in the smaller narrative of our lives? Why does a forward projection to the End lead us inevitably to a backwards reflection of the Beginning? What part does the Ultimate play in our mundane day-to-day? How does the Ultimate reach out to us, here and now? I think these are theological questions, given cruciality by spirutal experience and reflection, and they have a helpful place in our communal exploration of a world we’ve set on a rapidly changing course.

In grad school, I wrote for a Biblical interpretation class a global warming interpretation of one of Jesus’ prophetic utterances regarding the Second Coming, and the troubles that would precede this final act of God in history. Luke (21:25) says it: “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On earth, the nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea.”

I wrote that our fear of the danger to come should inspire a changing attitude to our world, our activities, and to one another. Less consumption, less material obsession, less exploitation; more compassion, more creative expression, more community.

But my professor corrected me — you can’t scare people into acting justly, even when the stakes are all human life, everywhere.

I was flumoxed, but I see what he was talking about. The chiding moralism of “you’re gonna get yours, fools,” rarely inspires lasting change. Just because science is on your side does not give you a right to be a jerk to your benighted neighbors. 

It seems that Christian reflection on the End Times (bear with me if you’re not a Christian), starts from a place of hope, not fear. Roger Haight summarizes Karl Rahner’s description of hope:

Hope…refers to the fundamental openness of the human spirit…hope desginates a region of human existence from which both faith and love are elicited. Hope reaches back into the human spirit as inner freedom that characterizes reflective consciousness.

This makes me think of the Zen precept of not-knowing — a fundamental openness of being, toward all being, exercised freely. This is a disposition that leads to a renewed commitment (for Christians, faith; for Zen Buddhists, bearing witness) and a guide for action (for Christians, love; for Zen Buddhists, compassionate or appropriate response). It’s nice when these two very different religions seem to agree on a deeper, objective dynamic in human encounter with the ultimate. It suggests a further expansion of these questions into secular realms of knowledge and action.

A question that has pursued Christian theology from its earliest days is: how does this exercise of human freedom influence the outcome of all things? What part of the World’s ultimate fate is our work, and what part of it is given to us freely? This is Paul on circumcision; this is the Augustinian/Pelagian controversy; this is the Reformation question of works-righteousness. More recently, Juan Luis Segundo asked: what of our work will endure into the life to come? How do we know what we do will be a part of the Eschaton? If nothing, then why do anything at all?

Moving from the Christian reflection to a more secular one: if you agree that climate change is real and as bad as it seems, then we’re facing a radically different world to come. It is worth asking: what of our work will endure into that different world? What can we create, in a spirit of openness and hope rather than fear and reaction, that will buoy the spirit of life and the floruishing human community? What part do we play in this cycle of life and death that we influence and receive so intimately and so globally?

That brings me to my math class, a space that is already open to my reflection, and where meaning is always alive, whether I notice it at the time or not. Conveniently, unexpectedly, I’ve already described PBL math as a method that encourages an openness, not-knowing, that corresponds to hope. Does it make sense to practice hope? I think so.

But there’s more here to explore — if we see the world’s situation as it is now, what would we want to instill in our students to survive what seems liklely to bring calamity and chaos, and certainly will affect the poor and marginalized of the world disproportionately. What do we want to teach our students, when we are facing a radical change in everything we know and assume about human responsibility and sustenance?

I don’t know! But I can see two preliminary avenues of questioning:

1) How is math itself related to the project of human flourishing? (problem solving! reasoning from evidence! resilience and community support! listening, being flexible, accepting new conditions, and taking worthwhile risks!)

And 2) what kind of space best communicates this to students, and helps them practice it, such that it sticks — that will communicate a transcendent value that is enduring, that approaches us from beyond our suffering world and helps us face it?

Next time. I need a sandwich.

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