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Monday, November 4, 2019

Math Machinations

Do any words uttered by human tongues produce as much anxiety as the daily cry, “Get out your math books?” Once upon a time, “The British are coming!” might have sent bodies into such a frenzy, and with better reason. But in our house, for lack of the perspective gained in war times, it is down to the math to upend us.

Curriculum comparison blogs and books there are aplenty. And if you wish to further compound your miseries with a throbbing headache, read two or six or ten of them. I do this at intervals, when the winds of school day emotions are unfavorable, and there are times when a curriculum change is in order. But the format is often not the problem. The myth of the perfect curriculum can often obfuscate a character issue.

The longer you wade in this pool of education and child-rearing, the more you steep in the notion that it’s all an exercise in character development. (Which narrows, certainly, the schooling options, to those that can and will organize around the idea of paideia.) A child who has tasted the sweetness of understanding wishes to know. He also wishes to swing on his tire swing. The child who can weigh these competing desires and choose well is a free person. His self-mastery will be the vehicle by which his love of discovery begets a life of learning.

Strong-willed, we shruggingly call a child who bites on the playground and runs towards busy streets and will not nap. Strong will, nursed on the stories and ideas that illustrate for him the difference not only between good and evil, but between impulse and choice, delivers him from compulsion. He is taught obedience as a child, but when he is educated, he develops wisdom to self-govern. And this is the primary qualification for governing others.

Is this a greater headache than three hours of internet searching over “kinesthetic math options?” Hopefully, it liberates instead. Our goal in math is not just to get everyone through calculus and into Princeton. Achievement in math is just a bend in a tributary in the river of ideas by which we develop free humans, habit being “to life what rails are to transport cars” (Charlotte Mason.) But because our aim is higher, those smaller goals become incidental, and within reach. We do master fractions and long division. But on its own, long division is too low a bar, a hoop fit more for a leaping tiger or a dog in a frilled collar. 

The well-governed child, and then the self-governed child, applies herself to math, first because it is the quickest route to time on her tire swing, and then because she becomes addicted to that thrill of understanding. We must first inculcate a love of goodness, an abhorrence of wrong, and the discernment between the two, and the rest will follow (with fewer tantrums, we hope). Eighteen years cannot the whole of the universe hold, so we must rather send off wide-eyed seekers into a world of possibilities than satisfied holders of transcripts that signify that that business is finally over and done with!

So we plug away, freed by our soaring ideals from the anxieties of limited, and limiting goals.  

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