The elevation of human dignity
Updated: Jul 25, 2020
It's been a few weeks now since book launch. In some ways, it has felt anti-climactic. After spending much of 2018 writing, I completed the "final" draft of Mathematics for Human Flourishing one year ago, and page proofs were edited over the summer of 2019. After that I could make no more changes, even though I wanted to. (As my editor said to me: "A book is never finished, only abandoned.") Then it was radio silence for 6 months as the book was put into production, and suddenly *pop* there's a book on bookstore shelves! So what's new for you feels old to me.
But as the reviews come in, and I see how the book lands with readers, I'm beginning to re-live the choices I made and the emotions I felt as I wrote the book: the debate over what to say, and how to say it; the struggle over the choice of a word or a phrase; the balancing act needed to reach multiple audiences; and what the book would communicate in its overall feel---whose voices I would amplify, the artwork I would choose, and kinds of stories I would tell. And now that people are hearing about the book, I often get this question: "what's your book about?"
I've found that question surprisingly difficult to answer in one sentence. Some reviewers of my book said the same thing: "this book is hard to categorize". And maybe that's because I had multiple goals for the book. I'll describe here the goals I had in mind while writing. You can debate whether I succeeded. :-)
The book should feel human. (Fitting for a book about human flourishing.) That means it should not look or feel like a math textbook. There should be lots of stories, to humanize the practice of doing math and to align with the basic human desires discussed in the book. The artwork should evoke math but also evoke humanness. (p.s. maybe we should re-think the way math textbooks are written, so that 'feeling like a math textbook' isn't a thing?)
The book should be more about being human than about doing math. Math may be a primary character in my book, but it should always play a supporting role to what my book is really about: the elevation of human dignity. Thus, the book and its chapters should lead and end with human stories, and urge us all to be better human beings to one another. Thus I wanted my book to widen the lens around which all of us discuss mathematics, by stepping back and asking the question: "What makes us human?"
The book should be inclusive. I attempt this in all sorts of ways. The book looks forward to the future of mathematics, and as such it should highlight a diverse set of people doing math, not just professional mathematicians. Teachers and math education researchers are often neglected voices in books about math. Students and non-mathematicians are often left out too. And the voices of very few women or people of color find their way into books about math. So, in quotes and in stories, I have amplified a diverse set of voices and I've positioned those often-neglected voices as people we may have the most to learn from.
The book should be deeper and broader than the original speech. The speech I gave as President of the Mathematical Association of America was centered around 5 themes ('basic human desires') and in a hour-long speech there is only so much I could say about each one. The book has 12 'basic human desires' that are the chapter titles, so there is lots of new content, but even the themes that were in the speech get a much more expansive treatment in the book. For instance, I actually said very little about Beauty and Truth in the speech, but I perhaps worked hardest on those chapters in the book because they were the hardest to get right.
The book should be accessible to a wide audience, and encourage or challenge all the possible audiences that encounter it. It's not just a book for the math-anxious public, but it's also a book that can challenge professional mathematicians to change the way they think about math too. I also wanted to write the book in a way that could be used to generate discussion in a math class or a book club.
The book should still have real mathematical ideas in it, explained in a publicly accessible way. Most of the reviews have focused on my attempts to tie human themes to math, but I also do try to explain some real mathematical ideas too. I use analogies to bring up ideas like these: duality, invariants, axioms, linear algebra, game theory, proofs by induction and contradiction, mathematical modeling, and a few other treats. I apologize: it was hard to avoid mentioning the Pythagorean theorem, but that is only because it is so well known and therefore a good launching point for connecting with readers. But there's plenty of uncommon mathematics in there also.
The book should be personal. Some of the topics I discuss are contentious, and in such situations, I've found that telling my own personal stories can be disarming. I've leaned into that, uncomfortably at times, in the book. I'm grateful to my editor, who encouraged me to double-down on what others have often found most compelling about my writing. But it also means sharing a lot of my own vulnerabilities, and trusting the reader to treat them with care.
The book should start conversations about what we are doing with incarcerated people, and many others who are often forgotten by society. Christopher Jackson, my friend who wrote the reflections as an official contributor to the book, is one of many remarkable people who remain locked away in the prison system with unduly long sentences after making mistakes as a teenager. If you know someone in a position of influence to change such harsh sentencing laws retroactively (the First Step Act reduces sentences, but not retroactively), both Chris and I would be very grateful if you would send them a copy of my book, and let me know so we can track of who's been reached.
In looking over all the goals I mentioned above, it strikes me that the unifying theme of all of them is the elevation of human dignity. So next time I'm asked what my book is about, maybe I will say this: "My book is about the elevation of human dignity, and how we are using math to raise people up or tear people down." If you have a better one-sentence description of the book, feel free to leave it in the comments.
Right now I am feeling gratitude for all the people who have shaped me and helped me along my journey in mathematics. After my own deep discouragement in graduate school, I never expected to be elected MAA President or to be in a position where I would even get to give a speech or write a book that people might want to read. So I took the responsibility seriously, and put forth my best effort. I hope you find Mathematics for Human Flourishing encouraging.