The Death of the Talent Fairy: Why I’m Learning CalculusArt & Literature, Education — By Hayden Butler on November 20, 2009 at 2:51 pm
It is an often-overlooked truth that a mathematician is a good friend to have. In my case, I happen to have a best friend who has dedicated years of his life to the study of mathematics. We make quite a pair, and there is a unique quality to our friendship in that our conversations often dwell on how the other might inform each field of study. Lately, though, our friendship has been focused toward the alleviation of a nagging conviction:
There is no reason why I should not learn Calculus.
Let me backtrack a bit. While writing my senior thesis, I came across John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. In the course of my reading, I came across the idea that education ought to accurately represent truth, and truth is known through a unity of all the sciences (science is used here to signify the study of some aspect of knowledge). In short, Newman argues that the quality of one’s view of truth is proportional to the quality of one’s exposure to the sciences and their relations. In other words, a person needs to study literature as well as mathematics. Otherwise, that person risks forming a disproportionate favoritism to the one over the other, and one field of knowledge usurps the rightful place of another, causing distortions to develop in one’s view of truth.
Quite struck by this idea, I quickly realized that my own education had tended toward favoritism of my major (English Literature) over all other areas. Following from this came the realization that I tended to favor knowledge from my own field to an immoderate extent, to the point of allowing it to impinge upon the territory of other sciences. I recognized my own attempts to use knowledge of literature to answer theological or psychological questions. Needless to say, this was a significant problem.
To return, then, to my glorious friendship with the mathematician, I have begun answering a pressing conviction that stems from my own disproportionate view of truth.
I am learning Calculus.
Given the present academic atmosphere—which tends to push students into specialization rather than generalization—expending efforts on areas that do not pertain to my field might appear to be a waste of energy. There is also the consideration of innate inclinations. I was told in high school that some people (like me) are naturally better at the humanities, whereas some are more inclined toward the hard sciences.
But if Newman is correct that truth is a unity accessed through all the sciences, then specialization must be pursued with great caution. Otherwise, one risks allowing one field of knowledge to annex the rightful place of another, and one’s perception of truth is distorted. This also provides a reason to be cautious about only pursuing areas in which we are naturally inclined. In education, if we allow mere proclivity to govern what is to be learned, we mount the slippery slope of determining curricula based on perceived difficulty. In an article for Scriptorium Daily, Dr. Paul Spears writes,
People in general are not born with amazing intellectual or physical giftedness. I continually have to remind myself of this. Most individuals have to work very hard to attain the level of excellence that we admire. Our culture reinforces this belief about natural abilities with language of giftedness—as if some “talent fairy” is throwing around skills in a way that is totally random and completely outside of our power to obtain on our own.
This comment reinforces the point that we cannot allow our education to be determined by perceived inclinations. Sure, I might be better now at English scholarship than mathematics. Looking back, though, there was a distinct time when I was having a hard time with math, and someone told me that I was just built for something different. Believing them, I relegated math to the back-burner (working only hard enough to secure my grade) and pursued the humanities with gusto. I can find no reason for why I should not have been just as excellent at math, should I have clawed at it with ardor and sought extra help. Just so, I am convinced that when intellectual pursuits are difficult, when it seems like we have hit an academic wall, we must keep kicking at it until it breaks down.
The myth of the talent fairy must be retold in our imaginations. Otherwise, we run the risk of inhibiting the physics major from learning philosophy, the computer programmer from picking up the violin, or the business major from writing poetry. The fact that a mathematician and a literature student can have a meaningful intellectual discussion is proof that this idea is possible. There is no reason why a literature student should not learn advanced mathematics.
And so I’m learning Calculus.