Erich Fromm

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the game that they had been playing intensely for weeks, had finally lost its hold on them, if only temporarily, and been replaced by another game; multiplying, fractions and quadratic equations.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?”

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence” - Aristotle

When I speak with other people who share the unique experience of having gone to a democratic free school, what we end up talking about is not howit prepared us for success in adulthood - we take that as a given - but how grateful we are to have had such an idyllic, happy childhood; that we were free to spend every day doing just what we wanted.  People in the worlds of unschooling and progressive education spend a great deal of time arguing that these alternatives do an even better job preparing children for success than traditional education.  This has, of course, been necessary in order to legitimize these alternative movements within the mainstream.  But it leaves intact the basic assumption that childhood is merely a means to an end, that the purpose of childhood is to prepare for adulthood.  But childhood, just like all of life, is to be lived fully and enjoyed. Erich Fromm has said that in order for schools such as A. S. Neill's Summerhill School to take root in the United States, parents would have to start caring more about their children's happiness than about their success.  This strikes me, even today, as a radical defense of happiness.  I do not believe that success in adulthood can ever redeem a miserable childhood nor is there any reason to think that the ability to submit to authority and conform to a coercive educational system is likely to contribute to future happiness.  When children are trained to tolerate restrictions on their freedom and taught to restrain their creativity and curiosity for some future payoff, it is more likely that this pattern will simply continue to repeat itself throughout their life.  They have been taught that life is about tolerating low-grade suffering and accepting a restricted range of their full human powers.  When children become accustomed to happiness early on, however, they are likely to have a very high standard for happiness later in life and they will also be more inclined to take responsibility for their own happiness.