The Unlikely Marriage of Mathematics and Literature

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” –Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

It is almost certainly a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s opening line from her great novel is one of the most memorable ever written. The American Book Review places it second on its list of the 100 best first sentences from novels.

Of course, Austen’s book, like the opening line, is about marriage—more specifically, the unlikely marriage of a seemingly mismatched couple. At first, the woman and man fall victim to their own pride and prejudice about one another. Only after they are able to overcome these obstacles can they marry happily.

Which brings me to another so-called truth that I fear has been universally (and wrongly) accepted: mathematics and literature are a mismatched couple. As a student and then as a young English teacher, I admit that I found no poetry in mathematics, no art in algebra. I saw literature and math as circles that scarcely touched—and never overlapped.

But like Austen’s couple, I have set aside my pride and prejudice and discovered that a happy marriage between math and English is indeed possible. I’ve learned that innumeracy and illiteracy are equally dangerous conditions and that the treatment for both may sometimes involve the same medicine.

Nowhere is that connection more evident than in “Small Change,” a short poem by Tim McBride. One of three poems in the SAS Curriculum Pathways resource Exploring Poetry about Families, it is a coming-of-age story about a child who is given a choice between two pathways to earn money. His poor decision, based on his failure to understand a fundamental mathematical principle—in this case the concept of exponential growth—leads to embarrassment and frustration.

tmpoem

The narrator’s uneasy awareness that “the obvious had not been true” is an epiphany of sorts. It results in this case from a truth revealed to the child by mathematics. But equally important, it is a truth revealed to readers by the poem.

And the poem gets at a wider truth about learning in general. “The human mind was designed by evolution to deal with foraging in small bands on the African Savannah,” says cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in How the Mind Works. We’re great at solving complex communication problems because that was essential to our survival, but faulting our minds for becoming confused by games of chance, statistical problems, and exponential growth patterns, Pinker says, “is like complaining that our wrists are poorly designed for getting out of handcuffs.”

Daniel Kahneman—a Nobel Prize winning psychologist and behavioral economist--makes a similar point in Thinking, Fast and Slow, where he poses this question: “Are people good intuitive statisticians?”

“We already knew that people are good intuitive grammarians, “Kahneman adds.”At age four a child effortlessly conforms to the rules of grammar as she speaks, although she has no idea that such rules exist. Do people have a similar intuitive feel for the basic principles of statistics?”

Kahneman’s research reveals that almost all of us are a bit like the boy in the poem. And he isn’t just talking about the slackers who fell asleep in math class. Indeed his findings reveal that “even statisticians were not good intuitive statisticians.” To make reliable estimates, they need to understand and apply the tools of their discipline.

For students willing to apply themselves, both literature and mathematics offer ways to expand and enrich our minds. Both move us beyond the realm of everyday speech: literature into a world of emotion and moral complexity, mathematics into a world of logical rigor that is the foundation for some of our most creative insights.

Both disciplines help us cultivate our potential and live more fully human lives.

Mathematics and literature—a suitable marriage indeed.

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Terry Hardison

Terry Hardison oversees the development of English language arts resources for Curriculum Pathways. Prior to joining SAS, Terry worked for 21 years as a teacher and as a district-level English language arts supervisor.

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