Math: The Only Liberal Art by Sam Ryskamp

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, as a Hillsdale College student and avid Forum reader, you probably came here to study the liberal arts. Perusing the diverse institutions of higher education, you discovered that there is no better place to partake in the classical, Greco-Roman pursuit of the liberal arts than Hillsdale. Now that you’re a student, your schedule is brimming with classes in the Western and American heritage, rhetoric, economics, natural and social sciences, philosophy, music, and the U.S. Constitution. Soon you’ll march proudly across the stage, clutching a freshly printed degree that evidences your completion of the most rigorous liberal arts education in America. But if you’re like the majority of Hillsdale students, you will receive that degree despite having utterly ignored the entire field of mathematics, the subject that lies at the center of a traditional liberal arts education.

How will you manage this? Very simply. You need only score 24 or better on the math portion of the ACT. Even though Hillsdale College has an average ACT score of 29, a 24 is enough to allow you, a student supposedly pursuing a well-rounded education, to ignore the entire discipline of mathematics. In no other area are the requirements so meager. Can you imagine the outrage if the same approach applied to History or English? Unfortunately, Hillsdale College, like many other American educational institutions, has allowed the term “liberal arts education” to serve, at least partially, as a get-out-of-math-free card. But if we look at history, we see that there are few subjects as central to the liberal arts as mathematics.

Mathematics has been in the liberal arts since the beginning. We trace our current conception of the liberal arts back to the medieval trivium and quadrivium, seven subjects that trained students to become knowledgeable citizens during the middle ages. The trivium was composed of logic, grammar, and rhetoric, and served as the basic education. The first is a close cousin of math, so it’s fair to count about one third of the trivium as mathematics. The quadrivium, on the other hand, was almost purely mathematics. It was made up of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Arithmetic and Geometry are pure math classes. To medievals, however, music and astronomy were also essentially applied math courses. Of the original seven liberal arts, five were math-related—a proportion that is not reflected in the core curriculum.

But let’s go back even further, to the original masterminds behind the liberal arts: the ancient Greeks. No one can deny the influence of Euclid, Archimedes, and the Pythagoreans on mathematics. The ancient Greek most gung-ho about mathematics, however, was none other than Plato himself. Tradition has it that Plato inscribed these words above the door of the Academy: “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter.” Plato viewed math as the ideal liberal art. For him, mathematics was a method of thinking, a tool for logically understanding the world in which we must first become proficient before we can tackle less objective topics. Socrates even went so far as to say that “The understanding of mathematics is necessary for a sound grasp of ethics.”

The Greeks and medievals recognized that one of the foremost purposes of a liberal arts education is learning how to think, and mathematics is one of the best ways to accomplish this goal. Math trains you to rigorously structure your thoughts without interference from preconceived political or religious biases. It forces you to recognize what is important, identify the larger principles involved, and then logically and systematically work toward an objective conclusion. In this way, math helps you build a framework for proper reasoning that can be applied to any subject. Plato stated in The Republic, “Mathematics are necessary, because by the exactness of the method, we get a habit of using our minds to the best advantage.” That habit is the essential goal of a liberal arts education.

Mathematics is valuable not only in its ability to train the mind in rational thinking but also from a purely historical standpoint. It’s a telling fact that every culture, from the ancient Babylonians to the British Empire, has chosen to devote a significant portion of its leisure and its brightest minds to the study of mathematics. A math course is a journey in the giant footsteps of Leibniz, Newton, Descartes, Da Vinci, Einstein, and more. Throughout the ages, math displays remarkable continuity, free from major upheavals or interruptions. We still respect the work of the Pythagoreans, and our linear algebra textbooks even include questions from 2000-year-old Chinese manuscripts. You would be hard-pressed to find another discipline so universal and so continuous. Math is a cultural common denominator (yes, that is a math pun), a universal language spoken by educated thinkers across time and geography. As such, it is a more than worthy pursuit for the student of the liberal arts.

Finally, mathematics synthesizes the twin pursuits of utility and beauty. At technical and career training schools, students sacrifice beauty for utility. At Hillsdale College, we tend toward the opposite. But math does both. You may not have recognized the beauty of math in your high school algebra class, but then again, you probably didn’t see much beauty in your high school composition classes either. As Aristotle himself said, “The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree.” Math is also exceedingly practical. According to Forbes Magazine, every single one of the fifteen most valuable college majors is highly math-intensive. Employers have always appreciated transcripts with a healthy dose of calculus, especially since the growth of the data-driven world. College is an opportunity to pursue what you love, and it is also a time of preparation to become a profitable member of society. Math reconciles these two goals like no other subject.

But if math’s longstanding liberal arts tradition, its historical value, and its inherent beauty aren’t enough to convince you, there must be another reason, and I think I know what it is. It’s an unspoken, but real inhibition: You just don’t think you’re good at math, and you’re worried you could get a poor grade. But when’s the last time that stopped you, a Hillsdale College student, from pursuing a liberal arts education? Believe it or not, math is something you—yes you—can learn. It might be difficult, but “strength rejoices in the challenge.” As Ben Franklin once wrote, “What science then can there be, more noble, more excellent, more useful for men, more admirably high and demonstrative, than this of the mathematics?” I only ask that you don’t allow the fear of a healthy challenge to prevent you from pursuing a true liberal arts education.

Sam Ryskamp is a sophomore studying the liberal arts. 


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