Just this weekend I was reading the record my mother kept of my first year. Under the heading “Signs of the Times on the Day You Came Home,” she wrote, “This summer was called the Second American Revolution. In the field of civil rights, many strides were made, and hopefully this will continue.”
The nature of mathematics appeals to my sense of order as well as my need to be artistic. Ideas follow consistent paths that lead from obvious notions of numbers to unbelievably powerful and imaginative ideas of infinity and topology—the locus of all that is possible. What’s more, to get from Idea A to Idea B, I need no test tubes, no weights, no pulleys, and no second opinions. Pencil, paper, brain and effort are the only tools that mathematics requires.
All high school students know the effort that math commands. The brain of a mathematician is always first called upon to be courageous, analytical, and beautifully creative—to imagine the world in the right way, to create that perfect framework that opens up the heavens and drops a solution at our feet. Never would an economist or a historian have the fortitude to declare a coffee mug equal to a donut. Yet, a mathematician could easily give the folks at Starbucks a view of the world that reveals just that. What high school students might not know is that mathematicians are needed and often appear where we would least expect them, and, I believe that perhaps Martin Luther King Jr. was the most courageous and perceptive mathematician of all.
I was two months and 24 days old when Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and declared his dream that this nation “live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’” In mathematics, we call those self-evident truths postulates; and we call living out the true meaning of those postulates deductive reasoning. Most mathematicians follow this process within an insulated world of their own imagination, absent of human folly: Euclid had his plane; Newton had the continuum; Ramanujan had numbers. Martin Luther King Jr., however did his mathematics in the dangerous world in which we all live. Here, the human condition dooms us to fail deduction more often than not. Consequently, for two hundred years the phrase “all men are created equal” can mean something entirely different than the essential solidarity of all human beings regardless of race—this was a major source of confusion for me, growing up in the sixties with a natural love of consistent logic.
The danger of badly doing mathematics with humanity is that wrong answers have real effects. In his heroic efforts to correct the bad math, Martin Luther King reset the paradigm by revealing more of those self-evident postulates: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere;” “oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever;” “non-violent tension in a community is necessary for growth.” With each statement, he lays bare the devastation as well as the nonsense of oppression. He reveals how we allowed invalid and false conclusions to masquerade as truth. We imposed this ugly ignorance on other persons, alienating them from their humanity, from their potential, from their past, their present, and their future. We were destroying our own character and the potential of this nation in the process, limiting our possibilities and narrowing our view. Not only did American society get the equality problem wrong, but we got the justice problem wrong; we got the truth problem wrong. And, many of us were, and are still, arrogantly denying the errors.
Now, I think young people laugh at the absurdity that someone would ever conclude a person’s skin color might determine where they could sit on a bus. That is simultaneously joyful and disheartening. There is joy that our students are growing up in an era where getting the equality problem wrong is socially unacceptable. However, the specter of oversimplification is dangerous. As obvious as the error of a student who says p=3.14 and claims to have understanding, so, too, glaring is the mistake that we are now getting 100% on the math test of humanity—that we don’t need to continue to battle for racial equality. Dr. King knew this. He also saw that the next battle was against the injustice of poverty and the undeniable connection between poverty and race. Ask what logically follows from those inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? The values of security, peace, comfort, education, the hope of a better life—as we reexamine the truth of our solidarity with all human beings, Dr. King called out to us to face “the fierce urgency of now.” How are we getting the problem wrong that there are children living in our city—our country, our world—who never have a moments rest from fear or hunger? What is the future of a society that continues to waste its enthusiasm on the dalliances of Tiger Woods and not the challenge of finding a warm place for everyone to sleep at night?
Mathematicians see the truth as it exists and they proclaim it. That’s what happened 50 years ago during the March on Washington. Martin Luther King Jr. eloquently, forcefully, and courageously made the plea of a mathematician who saw the obvious, the truth that many would not apprehend. It will come upon the students we are teaching now to do the same, to face down the challenge of poverty: to create the new paradigm, to proclaim their discovery of a solution, and then to look around for more challenges. If there is one thing you should learn from your math teacher, it’s that there is always more. Mathematics does not end at calculus, and justice does not end with electing an African American to the office of President of the United States. I’m sure Barack Obama as well as Dr. King would agree: There is no way we are done; it’s never that simple. We have made many strides and hopefully this will continue.