Prof Su: Mathematics for Human Flourishing

By Liam Chalk

The Harvey Mudd education revolves around math. The Core curriculum builds a foundation in calculus, linear algebra, and differential equations while challenging us to see how the magic of math intertwines with fields like computer science, biology, chemistry, and physics. 

But why do math?

Professor of Mathematics Francis Su is working to answer this question in his new book Mathematics for Human Flourishing. He has shared his vision for an appreciation for the beauty of math in education across the country, speaking at college campuses including Harvard and Swarthmore College and trying to change the narrow perspective people have of math.

“My book is based on the belief that every person has dignity. And if doing mathematics helps people to flourish and achieve their full potential, then we ought to make it available to everybody,” he said when interviewed.

In his retiring address as the President of the Mathematical Association of America, Prof. Su raised these concerns with the mathematics community and has since expanded his message to the wider public.

“A lot of people think about math as a means to an end. A tool that you learn now, but you’ll use later. And what I try to do in my book is encourage people to think that math is something that serves you well right now, because it builds certain aspects of character that serve you well, no matter what profession you go into.” Math helps students develop problem solving skills and critical thinking, but it also cultivates curiosity and creativity.

In his Moody Lecture presentation at Harvey Mudd on Dec. 4, Prof. Su outlined seven basic human desires that math helps satisfy: exploration, play, beauty, justice, freedom, community, and love. Too rarely do people appreciate the playful joy of solving a fun problem, the beauty revealed by math in the world around us, and the bonds of community we build with each other as we bond over math.

Even unlikely bonds of friendship can emerge from math. Someone who inspired Prof. Su to believe that math should be enjoyed by everyone is Christopher, an inmate who has decided to study math while serving a 32-year sentence. Christopher was looking to further his math education so he wrote Prof. Su a letter explaining his situation and his desire to pursue math.

 Since they started talking, they have bonded over math and become good friends. Christopher’s appreciation of math as a way to flourish and grow can inspire others to approach math in a similar way. By overcoming math anxiety and focusing too much on practicality, Prof. Su teaches us to appreciate the beauty of math for its own sake.

So, next time you feel frustrated on a problem set, ask yourself: “How does doing math help me be a better human being?”

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