Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Mathematician is not a Brain in a Vacuum

"It is essential to ask whether thr eading of modern fiction or the appraising of modern drama is proper study for any student unless they form part of the course which he is taking. Why should the geologist or chemist, the geograhper, musician or physicist concern himself with such matters? This is an urgent contemporary question, for much of the current debate about the role of a university or of higher education generally is directly related to it. As students we use our minds to grapple with the intellectual challenges of our particular academic discipline. But recent upheavals would underline that we do not properly stop there, that our task involves more than using our brain only on our own subject.

There are still many who would argue that this is not so. Their reason for being members of a college or university is solely to become linguists or chemists, more knowledgeable classicists or engineers. They have neither time nor inclination for studying anything which does not bear on this. But there is a serious danger in such an attitude which may not lightly be disregarded. C.P. Snow clarified it some years ago in his concern that scientists should not live islanded, since they are essentially part of the community and cannot therefore opt out of the responsiblity for their effect upon it. His point is valid for all specialist groups who by training or choice are cut off from, or are ignorant of, the needs and tensions and pressures of the society in which they live. To be so is to disregard a fundamentla aspect of human nature; membership of the corporate human race is inescapable, and therefore, however desirable it may seem to pursue one's study in isolation, it cannot be done.

If we cannot escape our corporateness and its implication for our studies, neither can we escape the complexity of our indiviual personalities. No human being is reduciable to a single aspect. George is not just a mathematician; George is also a man. As a man he is linked with other people and varied interests- parents, girlfriend, football team, newsagent, local MP, and even, perhaps, the local parson. All these add something to George the mathematician to make George the man. And if he is full to be a man, he must learn to apply the same cogency he uses in his specialist academic studies to the culture of this age, and to the many physical, emotional, rational and spiritual problems, both individual and social, which that culture reflects.

A student or scholar who rejects this may well suffer from the insidious disease of perpetually 'narrow-fronted' maturity. Unless he is prepared to use his mind on matters outside his particular subject with the energy and integrity he applies to that subject, he denies himself the possibility of multi-directional growth, because he is denying the relevance of his study to himself as a whole person, to the age in which he lives, and to mankind generally. For the mathematician, for instance, is not a brain in a vacuum: he is a being whose delicate awareness of himself and other beings demands the same sensitivity, accuracy and probity as his nicest mathematical calculations."

Ruth Etchells. p12-13, Unafraid to Be: A Christian Study of Contemporary English Literature. (IVP, 1969).


  1. Wonderful! I'm very glad the difficulty of my maths degree propelled me into taking language and philosophy modules, and also contained essay-writing and maths history. The increased specialisation of subject areas is quite a concern in my book. Thankfully many more are taking combined degrees, as that happens. But it stems from the pragmatism of our time - she says, "As students we use our minds to grapple with the intellectual challenges of our particular academic discipline," but that's an assumption far from many students! More often, "As students we use our minds to learn what we need to get the grades and a good job after, and hope it'll be interesting enough that we don't get bored." So the problem is, she seems to suggest, a lack of sense of social responsability, which flows from acknowledging that we're made in the image of a Triune God to rule over His creation?

  2. I knew you'd be the one to comment on this post! :)

    It's that sense of being Image-bearers entrusted with dominion that we have to instill in people - there's a world to be lead... which is a good of the CU-system, raising up leaders, and something I love in newfrontiers - that we're constantly calling people to step up.