Can You Do the Math?

Apparently, some urban elementary schools now encourage their 12-year-old students to “go out for lunch,” that is, to get together in small groups and go out to purchase their lunchtime meal at a nearby downtown restaurant.

When I first heard this, I was surprised, and my first thoughts were critical.  “Should schools be encouraging consumerism?” I wondered.  Should they be recommending salty, fatty restaurant food?  Should they be pushing such young students downtown?  Should they be stigmatizing students who have little access to money?  My further reflections moved me in a different direction, however.

When I was such a young person, I traveled around town freely.  Both on my own or with friends, I grew quite familiar with my neighbourhood and with the downtown, and I had plenty of experience conducting business in stores.  Young people today, however, appear to me to be much more restricted in their movements and activities, hardly having the opportunity to develop the skills of self-reliant engagement with the urban environment, and it is probably good that they are being encouraged to develop these skills.

One particular area of the non-self-reliance of these young people seems especially noteworthy.  Many, it seems to me, have little experience with money, and do not have the quick skills necessary for purchasing: they are not experienced in the interactions (and don’t really know what to expect or how to act) and they don’t know how to calculate change.  (This inability is pointedly reflected back and reinforced by many behind the counter who rely on electronic cash registers to tell them what change to give.)

For myself, I can’t imagine a life without facility with number.  Our lives are intensely quantified at every level from personal issues of making change at a store, paying a service charge at the ATM and reading the number of calories or grams of sugar in a packaged food produce, to the larger social and cultural issues of mortgage rates, national budgets, unemployment figures, votes for the governing parties, and immigration limits.  So much important information is communicated through numbers, and we are crippled at every one if these levels if we cannot easily understand the significance of these numbers with which we are confronted.  –And, further, our ignorance can be easily manipulated by others who deploy their numbers misleadingly.

In Book VI of Plato’s Republic, Socrates talks of the importance of education in mathematics. Mathematics is important for the sorts of reasons I’ve just given, to be sure, but, he argues, it is also important for even more serious reasons.  Mathematics is an engagement with formative structures of reality that are abstract, universal and necessary.  Mathematical structures are abstract in the sense that they don’t care about anything empirical: three plus five is eight, regardless of what the three or the five things are.  Such structures are universal because they apply to any and every situation, any and every three or five.  They are necessary because they are the structures that must characterize anything if it is going to count as “real”–anything that is must act in accordance with these principles, regardless of its specific circumstances.  Here we see the deeper significance of mathematics, beyond its practical value for dealing with everyday calculations of quantity: education in mathematics is primarily important because it introduces us to the domain of the necessary grounds that underlie empirical life.

When we study math, we learn to look beyond the immediate and to recognize that the immediate itself already answers to grounds and causes that are not immediately evident.  Studying mathematics is thus the beginning of the study of the “invisible” causes of things, the beginning of the attitude that doesn’t just stop at the “that” but asks, as Aristotle says, for the “why.”

I mentioned earlier the 12-year-olds and the cashiers who cannot on their own “do the math” required for their simple financial transactions.  But truly “doing the math” goes much deeper.  To understand our finances, to understand the economics of the downtown, is a deep matter of studying causes, of studying the powers that are deployed behind and through the simple everyday transactions in which we are engaged.

Socrates enjoins us to study these deeper causes.  Our studies should be mathematical until we have it as virtually “second nature” to look past the immediate and understand what deeper reality is insinuating itself into our lives through this immediate.

I am always a bit surprised and dismayed with the cashier who cannot make simple change.  I am even more shocked, though, by the educated adult who buys bottled water, gives money to the established “charities” whose attractive young agents solicit donations on the street, shops at malls, or votes for “budget-cutting” candidates.

Can you do the math?

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One Comment

  1. tim posgate
    Posted October 12, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    John, my 12 year old son has a fair bit of freedom and gets around town pretty well however we like to know where he is as often as possible. He is not the best at making change etc. but I think while I have tried to be supportive with math homework etc. I have also downplayed the importance of money. He doesn’t have an allowance and money is rarely a topic of discussion in our house. Nice Blog!!

    btw, I don’t buy bottled water. ha.

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The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).