[The following piece was prompted by a proposal from my students who run the school’s newspaper to write a short piece as one side to the debate of which is the superior subject, math or english. It was fun to write and I can’t wait to see the math teacher’s reactions. I have left his name out of this post.]
There is a book coming out this year in which a variety of authors and thinkers were asked to write an epistle to their younger selves. They were asked to give advice or admonition based on what they know now and one letter worth sharing comes from contemporary author, Jodi Picoult. The only piece of advice she thought worthy of sending back into time was this: “You will never use calculus. Trust me.” As far as I’m concerned, she is right.
But which is greater, English or Math? So the question has been posed to Mr. —– and myself. Of course, the unfortunate irony for my esteemed colleague attempting to sing math’s supposed superiority is that he must (to his chagrin) rely upon the English language. Therefore, I will do what I can in the way of leveling the playing field by taking the liberty to rephrase the question as such: if x≠ y; is x > y or y > x? Find (and defend) the value of x.
I’m going to leave variables behind here for a moment (if you are a true philomath, do not worry, I will write slowly), to point out that the fruits of this inquiry will inevitably be flawed because of the nature of the question. The question, as posed, suggests a necessary, mutual exclusion between these two subjects and is therefore a question that only a Mathematic Mind (m2) would ask; but, I would venture, one that only an English mind could answer.
Let’s begin with a look at the English Mind. As far as I have come to think of it (and with it), the English Mind is Creative and Cultured (E = mc2). While the creative mind is responsible for imagining new possibilities and developing all the cultural activities (music, stories, poetry) that make life more than something “nasty, short and brutish,” Mathematics targets the lowest common denominator. The Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd placed “Numbers” as the most basic type of knowledge one could glean in this infinitely complex universe; and who wouldn’t trust a Dutch philosopher?
T.S. Eliot, an early 20th century poet, once asked: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Again, math is but the foundation of the temple of knowledge. We have all heard that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, but I think we might add that the study of English is the beginning of knowledge, while math is but the lowly beginnings of information. I have no problem with math in the same way I have no problem with the bottom rung of a ladder: both are necessary to step on as you move upwards.
While the mathematician relies upon the dry, yeastless factuality of numbers, the English mind places these facts into the stories in which they make sense, thereby leavening the loaf of knowledge so it is not simply edible, but enjoyable as well. Even Jesus, with his few years upon this earth, chose not to waste his time propounding mathematical theorems; rather, he gave us story upon story, demanding that his followers be good readers. Christians, in fact, have been called “people of the book,” which is a badge we should wear with honour.
The English Mind, then, is a mind that knows how to step back and see the entire forest, not one which is content to count and cross-multiply the trees. The English mind can see the world in a grain of sand or a handful of dust. When Graham Greene talks of earth as a “marble floating through infinite space,” he captures something so immense and sublime in one simple phrase that you can’t help but marvel at your smallness. The English Mind also steps forward, into the dark wood to see the individual trees. It observes the particularities of a place and the idiosyncrasies of a character, the motivations and machinations that make men and women tick and it records them down with the precision of a mathematician and the love of a saint.
And here the false dichotomy between the m2 and the English Mind really breaks down. The true mathematician, I assume, has a similar confrontation with the sublime in the presence of a concept such as infinity. It would not be difficult to provide numerous examples of mathematical truths that boggle the mind; in fact, it would be as easy as pi.
But to get back on track; English is more important and will always be because it demands a more human way of thinking. The ancients knew this, and classified it under the humanities. Math, one of the sciences, was actually considered a handmaiden to literature and philosophy! Ironically, our culture now sees the humanities as something weak, something which needs defense, something which exists to serve the sciences by teaching literacy (as if knowing how to speak efficiently can lead to an abundant life).
Because of this, English has become the helpless victim of numerous, false stereotypes. Here are the three most common:
1) Any answer in English can be right (ok, I’ll admit that’s somewhat true…)
2) English is an overly emotional subject which trains us how to get in touch with our feelings (frankly, I feel hurt when I hear this, and wouldn’t mind getting together with a group of other English folk to talk it out).
3) English is an easy way to get an A+ (the joke’s on you here; I mark everything with smiley and frowny faces).
So, as you can see, although English might be in disarray in our society, it is a truly superior discipline. Now I could go on, but I’ve had this tongue in my cheek for far too long and must take care of it. For my mathematically inclined readers, do not worry; I’ll be fine.