Mathematics for Human Flourishing

Francis Su
Published by Yale University Press in 2020

Reviewed by Dave Klanderman, Mathematics and Statistics, Calvin University

“For such as time as this.” This phrase serves as part of a final justification offered by Mordecai in his plea to Esther to use her role as Queen to help to save the Hebrews from Haman’s plot to destroy them (Esther 4:12-14ff). In a similar way, Francis Su offers insights into the nature of mathematics and its potential value to a world struggling with a pandemic and to a nation confronting centuries of racial discrimination that extends to all areas of life, most prominently the criminal justice system. For this reason, along with many other virtues, his most recent book Mathematics for Human Flourishing should become required reading for those who do mathematics, those who teach mathematics, and those who until now may have avoided mathematics.

At first glance, this book offers a total of 13 chapters linked to the nature of mathematics. However, rather than disciplinary topics such as algebra, geometry, and calculus, the author chooses unexpected topics such as flourishing, struggle, justice, and freedom. Francis Su is making the case that when properly viewed and valued, mathematics can offer us unique ways to describe everyday experiences, model the “productive struggle” that applies to many of life’s challenges, recognize elegance in justification, and delight with problems whose answers lead to even more interesting questions.

Each chapter includes one or more mathematical puzzles. Although the impact of the book could be appreciated without taking time to ponder these problems, the experience is much richer when the reader pauses to play with these mathematical challenges. Hints and some more detailed answers are provided in the back of the book, but you will more deeply appreciate “naked Sudoku” or proof by contradiction if these resources are consulted only after engaging in the productive struggle. His approach has appeared in other mathematical books written for a general audience,1 but he carefully selects problems that illustrate the chapter’s theme and can be explored by those with limited mathematics background while still being interesting and potentially challenging to those with more advanced mathematical training.

Francis Su argues that mathematics is best taught and learned in this mode of playful exploration. By contrast, teachers who focus primarily on rote memorization with quick recall of basic facts, mechanistic success applying algorithms, and avoiding open-ended problems deprive students of the real beauty of mathematics and the real power of mathematical thinking. He notes that students rarely experience the opportunity to play around with mathematical ideas and explore interesting mathematical topics, relationships, and applications.

All of the above components would make this book worthy of consideration for readers with a variety of mathematical training. However, the feature of the book that should make it required reading for all mathematics majors and mathematics teachers and recommended reading for all others, is the author’s written correspondence with Christopher Jackson, a credited contributor to the book. Excerpts of letters and e-mails exchanged between Francis and Christopher appear at the end of every chapter. While other letter exchanges between mathematicians have been documented historically (for example, a series of letters between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat provide the foundations of probability), none can rival the timeliness of this ongoing written exchange. As noted in the first excerpt, Christopher is writing from a federal penitentiary. He is serving a lengthy prison sentence for drug-related offenses. In addition to an initial 7-year sentence, a 25-year sentence was added in lieu of a second 7-year sentence during a “get tough on crime” mood within the United States of America. These mandatory minimum sentences have been shown to differentially impact African Americans,2 and this particular type of additive sentencing has more recently been outlawed. However, the change in the law was not made retroactive, so Christopher still faces decades in prison even though he has essentially served the full value of his “earned” sentences.

In the face of this injustice, Christopher sought to better himself by immersing himself in learning mathematics. After completing his GED, he continues to help fellow inmates to study for their own educational degrees even as he continues to get ever deeper in the field of mathematics. What began nearly seven years ago as a request for assistance and recommendations for additional reading that was sent to Francis Su, a professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, blossomed into a two-way conversation about issues such as struggle, freedom, justice, and love, each topic tinged with a mathematical flavor. An epilogue provides details of an in-person visit and conversation when Francis Su travels to the prison where Christopher Jackson is currently incarcerated.

At strategic moments in the book, Francis Su provides autobiographical details that highlight his journey to becoming a mathematician. In particular, he documents challenges that he encountered, some correlated with his ethnic and racial identity, as well as the crucial role of a mentor in graduate school who offered him grace when it was most needed.3 His personal story highlights a need to reach all students, particularly students of color, by applying teaching and learning strategies that foster curiosity, allow for productive struggle, value collaboration and student voices, and highlight situations in which a mathematical viewpoint can influence everyday life.

While other books written for a general audience have explored the connections of mathematics to such topics as beauty, truth, and meaning4 or the impact of mathematization on culture,5 few if any have extended the discussion to encompass (productive) struggle, power, justice, and freedom. In the chapter entitled “Justice,” the author draws on his personal religious beliefs and the implications to advocate for underrepresented groups within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). He documents the similar interest among both men and women, among multiple races and ethnicities, in the STEM disciplines, but he also notes the much lower graduation rates within these majors among students of color. Serving as a role model helps him to address this inequity, and all STEM faculty members need to develop specific strategies to retain students of color within these programs.

Like these other books, Mathematics for Human Flourishing would serve as an ideal source for discussion in a senior capstone course taken by undergraduates with majors in mathematics and mathematics education. For that matter, I plan to use Su’s book as a reference in my courses that focus on methods of teaching mathematics, particularly at the middle school and high school levels, although his recommendations on ways to promote explora-tion and play in the mathematics classroom apply equally well at the earliest grade levels.

Josh Wilkerson teaches geometry and advanced placement statistics at Regents School of Austin, a classical Christian school in Texas. During the spring semester of the 2019-2020 academic year, he organized a book discussion group around Su’s book. Initially, he invited faculty and staff colleagues with the goal of including both mathematics teachers as well as those who taught other subject areas or served the school in other capacities. Eventually, the group grew to include some of his students as well as parents with children enrolled at the school. Participants gained new insights, and some changed their perspectives on mathematics as well as other issues through engagement with ideas presented in the book. Although begun before the transition to online teaching and learning, the book discussion group continued via Zoom meetings during the last few months of the school year. It should be noted that Su provides discussion questions for each of the 13 chapters, although it may have been more convenient to provide them at the end of each chapter rather than in a separate section at the end of the book.

Overall, Francis Su has written an engaging book that provokes deeper reflection about mathematics, offers engaging mathematical puzzles and problems with later hints to reward productive struggle, and challenges those who teach mathematics to move beyond mere recall of facts and algorithms to promote community through collaboration and exploration. Beyond mathematics, his correspondence with Christopher Jackson underscores a need “to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly” as we serve both God and neighbor (Micah 6:8). While other examples of educational initiatives with those serving time in prison exist,6 Francis responded faithfully to an inquiry from an individual that expressed a desire to delve more deeply into mathematics while simultaneously connecting on a personal level.

Cite this article
Dave Klanderman, “Mathematics for Human Flourishing”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 50:3 , 334-336

Footnotes

  1. See, for example, Suri, Gaurav & Bal, Hartosh Singh: A Certain Ambiguity: A Mathematical Novel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).
  2. For a thorough discussion of this and related issues, see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York, NY: The New Press, 2010).
  3. For more details on his unique journey, refer to his farewell address as president of the Mathematical Association of America in 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEtDvc1SWm8.
  4. For example, see James Bradley and Russell Howell, eds., Mathematics Through The Eyes Of Faith (New York: Harper One, 2011).
  5. For example, see chapter 7 of James Bradley and Russell Howell, eds., Mathematics In A Postmodern Age: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 193-219.

  6. For example, Calvin University offers a liberal arts undergraduate degree program at the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan.

Dave Klanderman

Calvin University
Dave Klanderman is Professor of Mathematics and Statistics at Calvin College