What Is The Purpose Of Math?

One late afternoon, as I sat reading a book here at the Macomber Center, I looked up and suddenly realized that almost all of the kids were engaged in some form of math exercise. There were kids of all different ages solving problems at different levels, some by themselves and some helping others. Though I wasn't really aware of it until now, this interest in math had been gaining steam all week and on this particular day they had been working on it fairly consistently since the morning. I have to admit I was quite surprised to see this and had trouble explaining it to myself. What could have possessed them? But furthermore, why did it take me all day to register this extraordinary development? It must have been because the quality of attention and engagement and the overall energy of the main room where all of this was taking place had not really changed, only the object of focus had changed. Apparently Bannanagrams, the game that they had been playing intensely for weeks, had finally lost its hold on them, if only temporarily, and been replaced by another game; multiplying, fractions and quadratic equations. They were tackling these exercises with the same spirit of joyful engagement that they bring to everything else they love to do - soccer, skiing, making movies. Its not uncommon for me to get phone calls at home from one or more of the kids rallying for an impromptu ski trip for the following day when the conditions warrant it, but now Denise was getting phone calls too, reminding her to bring in a fresh batch of math problems for the following day. I was raised to believe that most children are only interested in math to the extent that it is relevant to their immediate experience and that their interest in it will be limited to the functional value that it has for their life at a given time. This means learning how much of your allowance you will have left over if you buy that package of baseball cards. But it also means that if you want to get into a particular college for its superior journalism program, and admission into that program requires SATs, then you will learn the math you need for that particular purpose. But these kids were not using math as a means to some other end, they were approaching it as an end in itself, for the sheer pleasure that it produced. This is what the psychologist Karl Beuhler called the “delight of function”. As Erich Fromm puts it, “People enjoy functioning not because they need this or that thing but because the act of making something, the utilization of their own capacities, itself is a pleasurable experience.”

It seems to me that we ruin children's experience of subjects like math when we only emphasize their importance in terms of the process of "preparing for adulthood".  If the purpose of life is growth, to increase knowledge of oneself and the world, and to engage the world on the basis of one's own unique talents and strengths, then childhood should be seen as the pinnacle of human flowering. It should not be seen as merely a preparatory stage of life. Nietzsche defines a mature adult as someone who has rediscovered the seriousness of a child at play. The true spirit of learning, a passion for knowledge, the desire to challenge oneself, is not something that can be taught, but nor does it need to be. Its something that every child is born with. It can either be retained and further cultivated or it can be stamped out.

We live in a society which piously proclaims life-long learning to be the highest virtue with slogans like “never stop learning”, “learning is for life” and so on. Yet our entire way of life betrays exactly the opposite, that education is a means to an end. Perhaps the reason that we sentimentalize this notion of life long learning, learning for the love of it, is that we live in a society which makes it very difficult to actualize. In the words of Robert Thurman, “why don't people realize that education is the most important thing in life? Why do they think that education is just to prepare you for life, as if life was something else?”