Theological values in secular math education

Before continuing to look at math education in the light of, on one hand, a drastically uncertain future, and on the other, values inherent in that work that we would want to endure in our students (that is, values that are somehow ultimate), I thought I’d develop a little scheme for talking about theological values that are swimming around in a math class already. You don’t need the language of theology to describe them, but that’s what I’m doing, to give them some ground beyond the smaller contingencies of our present education system.

For my wider project here, I’m writing secular theology — theology that takes as its goal some coherence with non-theological language, and has some cruciality for situations that are commonly taken as non-theological.

Allied to that goal, having more to do with my own perspective than any necessary feature of secular theology, I’m writing in a dual-belonging frame — making use of both Christian and Buddhist concepts to cast some light on those typically non-theological, secular issues. That these concepts have some analgous relationship is interesting in itself, but that argument will be more implicit in what I write. Think of this as fair use. (I’d like to build more on the idea that a interreligious dialogue must become a secular dialogue, to find common language — but that’s for some other time.)

So, here’s how I’m laying out theological values for my present purposes. Let’s start with the theological virtues of Hope, Faith and Love (c.f. Paul and Thomas Aquinas). As I think interreligiously, triune concepts are helpful markers. Of course Christianity is replete with them, but they crop up in Buddhism as well. I’m thinking now of the Three Pure Precepts or Three Tenets of Zen — Not knowing, Bearing Witness, and Compassionate Action. Putting these two triune structures alongside one another illuminate them both. To wit:

Hope and Not-knowing — this is a fundamental openness to reality, a stance of accepting rather than controlling things as they are.

Faith and Bearing Witness — this suggests a trust and commitment to what is disclosed when we see with the eyes of Hope and Not-Knowing.

Love and Compassionate Action — this is the appropriate response when the previous two are realized. I’ve also seen that last phrase as “appropriate action” or “appropriate response,” which suggests a fundmental relationship with what is really true and love/compassion. There’s nothing special about it — love is actually what’s up. We needn’t reach for it or create it, it’s inherent in what’s happening, and when we respond with it we’re responding in perfect harmony to/with the situation. You don’t have to work too hard to see this play out in the Christian system, either. The other thing that’s important about these is: they’re fundamentally communal.

So there are your three Buddhist-Christian theological values. Now for a more absurd sleight of hand, I move them into the math classroom.

For reasons I can’t quite articulate, I’ve made these axial — each pair create a pair of balancing forces which I’m aruging I want my math students to develop and realize (again, in a completely secular context).

How do Hope and Not-Knowing map onto my math class? As patience and urgency. My students must learn to watch carefully and quietly, but with intention. The tension between these two describe a kind of temper that is always watching and ready. Confronted with a problem (mathematical, theological, or otherwise), this temper is your starting point — before you reach out to work with it, you need to face it squarely. It takes a long time to really understand a mathematical concept, with lots of little and big errors and adjustments along the way. Frequent re-doing means you need to hold that frustration with patience but also feel the internal pull to keep on trying. This is also called active attention.

How do Faith and Bearing Witness map onto my math class? As risk-taking and reflection. More active thatn the previous, this is a commitment, a trust, and a relationship with the object. It is partially a leap, an acknowledgement that we don’t know everything, but it is not reckless or unprecedented. It is based on prior experience, but requires some kind of break with that old evidence because: something new is here. Mathematical risk-taking is trying different approaches, testing with your mind different avenues, trusting that you can learn something by trying, but also trusting that your own experience is not completely irrelevant in this context.  Reflection implies the stepping back and seeing what’s happening, where the problem is and where you are, and where what you know runs up against what it presents as unknown.

How do Love and Compassionate Action map onto my math class? As argument and listening. Love and Compassioante Action are both ethical responses to the situation of the community, and transferred to the community of a math class, our commitment to one another is to argue and to listen. Argue, in terms of presenting statements with reasons that can be contested or agreed upon; listen, in terms of receiving the statements of others carefully and with attention. In math, this grows out of the previous two. If you’re paying close attention to what’s happening in working through a math problem, and if you’re trying things and thinking about what you’ve done, it’s natural in community to simply extend those processes to others: by taking in arguments and responding to them.

We often think of mathematical dialogue as purely intellectual, and place love and compassion in the realm of the heart — but I wonder what mathematical dialogue stands to gain from growing out of the heart-mind? That reflection might lead us to critique the current individualized, competitive system of education, that in my opinion handicaps math education more severely than other disciplines.

So that’s my preliminary Buddhist-Christian analysis of theological values found in a secular math classroom, that math students can be developing and realizing all the time. Note that these are probably values that apply to any discipline that requires dialogue — doing it in math would mean, we’re working with numbers and shapes and patterns. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do it with openness, trust, commitment, and love.

4 responses

  1. Love this. A lot to think about. Have you seen Tracy Zager’s Ignite on math colleagues? It fits right into what you’re talking about compassionate acting. Interesting that you started with students – I thought you were going to model teaching on these three.

    • John, that’s an interesting direction to go with this — is probably end up arguing that you’ll be engaged in parallel process to whatever you structure for your students. Want familiar with Tracy Zager until now, will start following her. Thanks for commenting!

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