Thinking about Francis Su’s “Mathematics for Human Flourishing”

Francis Su:

What I hope to convince you of today is that the practice of mathematics cultivates virtues that help people flourish.  These virtues serve you well no matter what profession you choose.  And the movement towards virtue happens through basic human desires.

I want to talk about five desires we all have.  The first of these is play.

Yeah, so the first of these fundamental human desires is play, and the whole list looks like this:

  1. Play
  2. Beauty
  3. Truth
  4. Justice
  5. Love

The way Su sees things, if you use math to chase these desires then you end up cultivating virtues. Here are some of those virtues:

  • Hopefulness
  • Perseverance
  • Joy
  • Transcendence
  • Rigorous Thinking
  • Humility
  • Circumspection

(Justice and Love are desires that don’t end in virtues for Su, it seems, as he doesn’t name any virtues in those sections of his talk. Instead, pursuing love is supposed to enable your other pursuits because it results in seeking meaningful human connections: “Love is the greatest human desire.  And to love and be loved is a supreme mark of human flourishing.  For it serves the other desires—play, truth, beauty, and justice—and it is served by them.”)

(So, then what’s the role of Justice? Maybe for Su it’s sort of like a necessary consequence of valuing all these other things. To truly desire all these other things is to desire them for everyone, and that necessarily is the pursuit of justice? I’m just making stuff up here, I’m not sure what Su thinks.)

Anyway, basically none of Su’s talk resonates with me. I don’t mean that I think he’s wrong.* I mean it doesn’t resonate — it doesn’t hit my frequency, make me hum.

* Well, I guess I don’t have any confidence that the study of math itself can impart any of these virtues. I don’t know if he’s claiming that they will, though I think he is.

OK, fine, but then what do I think?

One of my favorite games is “long response to short thing OR short response to long thing.” Let’s play “short response to long thing”:

Michael Pershan’s Version of Math for Human Flourishing:

Five Fundamental Desires:

  1. Understanding
  2. Belonging
  3. Growing
  4. Teaching
  5. I’m not sure but I came up with four

Virtues that one MIGHT develop in math, but I make no commitments about how frequently or reliably even an idealized version of math education could promote these in our students, since virtues are BIG things and math is just ONE thing:

  • Humility
  • uhhh this is also hard
  • I’m totally stuck

Maybe not “virtues,” but ways in which I think math makes my life richer:

  • Math helps me know that, to really understand something or someone, I need to give it my full attention.
  • It gives me an arena in which to grow.
  • It gives me questions to share with others.
  • Is there a name for that thing where you’re walking down the street and you can’t not see parallel lines or tessellations or similar triangles? The math curse? I love that.
  • I love theory. I love that thing where you take a perfectly conventional idea and flesh it out, completely. I recently read that topology came, in part, in response to Cantor’s proof that the line and the plane were equinumerous. But clearly there is a difference between the two — how can we capture that? “How can we capture that?” is one of my favorite questions to ask.
  • I love that math gives me things to help other people think about.