Francis Su’s passion is not math alone, but how math can make us better people. In Mathematics for Human Flourishing, his chapter titles sound less like math and more like philosophy: truth, beauty, power, justice, freedom, community, love. . . . The epigraphs at the beginnings of the chapters are from a French philosopher, Jewish thinker, dance choreographer, playwright—even Pontius Pilate and the apostle Paul.
These quotes are from recognizable people who cover a wide range of human experience. But Su begins the book with someone less important. He introduces us to Christopher Jackson, an inmate who is serving a 32-year sentence for his involvement in a crime when he was a teenager. He had written to the professor because he was spending his time in prison teaching himself advanced math and wanted to learn more.
The two struck up a correspondence, and now Jackson’s letters appear in the book, one per chapter. Over the writing of the book, Su sent him each of his chapters for review and comment, and Jackson is named as co-author.
Jackson is African American. Su is Chinese American, and the first president of the Mathematics Association of America who is not white. The book is not about race, though it grapples with race. It’s about welcoming and encouraging all kinds of people, especially those who don’t match your preconceptions. It’s about education that causes students to grow and flourish. The reader sees how exploration is better than rote memorization, and can prepare you to solve problems you’ve never experienced before.
Today almost everything is something we’ve never done before. In a year when just maintaining and surviving is success, “flourishing” sounds like a shining beacon.
The other personality who shows up throughout the book is Simone Weil, the French philosopher who lived in the first half of the 20th century. Weil said, “Every being cries out silently to be read differently.” For her, to read someone meant to interpret or make a judgment about them. So she was saying, “Every being cries out silently to be judged differently.”
Each of us wants to be seen, and we can’t fully be seen until the other recognizes the limits of their experience and point of view. And we can’t fully see others until we recognize our own limits. How can we all learn to see each other better?
The challenge can feel large, but what I love about Francis Su is his joyful encouragement. Once we know that our viewpoints are limited, we can do something about that. We can become explorers and wayfinders. We can grow. We can welcome. We can love.
Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.