Friday, August 20, 2010

Weekend Post: Math and Me

I’m about as far from being a mathematician as one can get while still being able to add 20% to a restaurant check. Math was my bane all throughout school. I hated it and held it in contempt. I failed Algebra I … twice. That takes a special kind of stupid.

I know my subjects: literature, art, history, philosophy, and theology. But the math thing always bugged me. I didn’t like the fact that I’d let it defeat me, and suspected I had done so for bad reasons, such as arrogance and laziness.

About ten years ago, I decided to do something about it. I bought a couple of “teach yourself” books and began with straight mathematics and “pre-algebra” and then did a full course of algebra self-study. It was hard going, but eventually I began to listen to the numbers like I could listen to words or music or rhetoric. I realized that they were a language and I just needed to let the numbers speak.

And, finally, I understood it. I’m still no mathematician, but I get it now. I can follow problems and see the special beauty in numbers.

My faith had a lot to do with helping me clear that hurdle. I study a particular stream of Catholic philosophy known as Thomism, which is a rigorously logical approach to all the questions of Creation. St. Thomas Aquinas was my first big personal “discovery” since college, when I first dug deeply into Plato. He opened up a doorway to a vast storehouse of logic. It was not merely a belief system, but a way of approaching any question in an orderly way, giving equal time to contrary arguments, assuming nothing, and testing everything.

Logic is at the core of Creation, just as it is at the core of all good gaming. Games and puzzles are logic made manifest. They are concrete. They can be cracked open and understood. I was always good at pattern puzzles, conundrums, riddles, and lateral thinking. But with St. Thomas in one hand and a new respect for math in the other, I started tackling the kind of puzzles and problems I used to avoid.

I’m still not all that great at them, but I like to think I understand them and appreciate them better than I used to. I also think they are terribly important, particularly in the education and parenting of children. We live in a world where extravagant emotion always trumps logic and plain old common sense. We could do with a little more logic and a little less hysteria. We’ve spent several generations nurturing our inner child, when we should have been nurturing our inner Mr. Spock.

Games and puzzles are almost always intertwined with mathematics, and all of them taken together sharpen the mind. They help us understand ourselves and our world. They form a language with its own poetry. We have to make sure the next generation knows how to listen to that poetry.


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