When I took college algebra (the first time), I had a great professor, even though I flunked with an F minus. On the first day of class he talked about numbers, which seemed logical since it was a math class. Then he asked us if numbers were real. We all answered in the affirmative. He then asked, “Have any of you ever seen a number?” At this point, we figured we were being set up for something. When we all answered yes to his question, that we indeed had seen numbers, such as when they are written on paper or on a chalkboard, he asked if we had ever seen a unicorn. I think he even drew one on the board. He followed that drawing with the question, “Do unicorns exist? Because I can draw one.” We were all caught off guard — obviously, unicorns don’t exist.
Once again he asked us, “Have any of you ever seen a number?” Finally, we understood the point of the question. There are things like numbers that we do not see that are real.
It has been over 20 years since I flunked that college math class, and that professor has since retired. Even after so many years, the memory of his questions about whether numbers are real or not still hits me as a profound truth.
Numbers are concepts. Concepts are real even if we don’t see them because concepts have consequences. Numbers have consequences as well. We all know that bad numbers can lead to bad things. Bad math can lead to the collapse of a building if the architect and/or engineer made mistakes in their calculations.
The purpose of education is to seek truth, goodness and beauty. Before we can do that, however, we have to agree that truth, goodness and beauty actually exist. If there is not objective truth, then we have to ask why we have education in the first place. If math problems don’t exist because we can’t “see” a number, then we all might as well pack up and let every man fend for himself when it comes to arithmetic.
I often think about Sister Mary Agnes, my third grade math teacher, who taught me that 2 + 2 = 4. What if I had responded to her instruction by saying, “Well, Sister, maybe that’s true for you, but I have never seen an actual number. So for me, 2 + 2 = 5. That’s my reality.” I probably would have gotten a harsh lesson on truth, goodness and beauty — the truth of the reality of numbers, the goodness of her love for me and the beauty of her setting me straight.
Truth, goodness, beauty and even love either exist or they don’t. The concept of relativism is either true or not true. Many people involved in education have succumbed to our relativistic, postmodern society that says, “My truth is my truth, and you have to be tolerant of whatever I think is true.”
Once when I was a child, I was putting a puzzle together, and I was having trouble getting one of the pieces to fit where I thought it should go. I believe it was my mom looking over my shoulder who said, “Honey, that does not go there.” She was right. A truth existed. Sadly, many students today would be apt to respond to my mother’s prompting with an answer like, “Who are you to tell me where this should fit? This is my reality, and that makes it true.”
Like numbers, love is a truth that none of us can see. Love is not even a feeling; it is a decision. Love is real, just as concepts and numbers are real. We must always seek that which is true.
When I was growing up, all my teachers and professors believed that concepts and numbers do exist, even if I sometimes didn’t see them. They all loved truth, and they always sought to pass on that love of truth. In doing so, they showed love to me. I had great educators who believed that education was the pursuit of truth. God bless them.