Whitefield Academy Blog
Classical Math: Encountering God Through Numbers
The following post is edited from a speech given by the Whitefield Academy Head of Math and Science, Sarah DeConink.
Math is often categorized as a collection of patterns and comparisons. Some people describe it as a language of order. Both of these are true, but math is so much more than patterns and order. Mathematics in a classical Christian school is primarily considered not a boring requirement but an art that conveys the beautiful and poetic expression of creation while developing virtue in the individual who carries the mantle of studying it.
We can best define these mathematical arts in the structure of the Quadrivium. The Quadrivium, or “Four Ways,” consists of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Arithmetic is the art of multitude. Much of what we do in the lower school teaches arithmetic with counting, operation, sequence, pattern and order. Geometry is the study of magnitude. This is seen in our geometry and science classes where we teach the skills of observation and measurement of these magnitudes. In geometry, we learn the logical way to think about spatial things. Music as a mathematical art is not what you might think of at first, but the art of understanding music lies in learning about numbers in time, in ratios and in proportions. This is the heart of our pre-algebra class where we teach fractions, decimals and percents. Finally, astronomy is the study of movable magnitude. Traditionally people observed the motions of the heavenly bodies in the night sky, but we now know that we can observe magnitudes in movement all around us, in the human body in Biology, under the microscope in Chemistry, and in motions, forces and energy of objects in Physics.
Logical Thinkers Not Formula-Memorizers
We aspire to teach students to make logical decisions based on known information, to recognize patterns, to make connections and to synthesize multiple skills in problem solving. A student will become more skilled at thinking critically if we train them how to look at a number or magnitude in a deeper, contemplative way, making many connections, than if we train them to memorize a bunch of formulas that they don’t understand. We are looking for the “Aha” moment of internal understanding when a student makes a joyful connection to the beauty of God’s creation and more importantly to God’s character.
Numbers in God’s Creation
When we get to the root of it, we realize we can’t understand a created world without numbers. Every last molecule of creation is imprinted with the ideas that numbers beautifully impart to us. Indeed, we actually understand something of whom God is when we stare deep into patterns, ratios, magnitudes and motions. If the Language Arts are meant to teach us to read Holy Scripture, then the Mathematical Arts are meant to teach us to read Creation. Numbers are God’s idea and can be seen in every aspect of His creation. This means they are good and we should learn about them to better know God.
Developing Virtuous Mathematicians
At Whitefield, the faculty and staff care deeply about the development of virtue in each of our students. There is no denying that studying math can be tedious and stretch us to our limits. But it is Good for us to do because God created it. Because our math classes are geared toward understanding the Great Ideas in nature, they necessarily mandate more discipline and focus. On this journey, we fight together against our sinful nature in two ways: both in our pride and in our apathy. A student who wants to check off a box and be done with a difficult task will be challenged in their pride of wanting achievement over true understanding and pointed back toward focusing on a deeper level. On the other hand, a student who won’t engage and is apathetic or disrespectful in their approach will kindly be pointed back toward the task that is before them and asked to engage with their whole heart.
Our great hope is that students will become self-learners who think critically as they engage all tasks and relationships in life. We hope they will come to know something of the great delight there is to be had when we do math and love God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind.