The
ancient Greeks argued that the best life was filled with beauty, truth,
justice, play and love. The mathematician Francis Su knows just where
to find them.
Math
conferences don’t usually feature standing ovations, but Francis Su
received one last month in Atlanta. Su, a mathematician at Harvey Mudd
College in California and the outgoing president of the Mathematical
Association of America (MAA), delivered an emotional farewell address
at the Joint Mathematics Meetings of the MAA and the American
Mathematical Society in which he challenged the mathematical community
to be more inclusive.
Su opened his talk with the story of Christopher, an inmate serving a
long sentence for armed robbery who had begun to teach himself math
from textbooks he had ordered. After seven years in prison, during which
he studied algebra, trigonometry, geometry and calculus, he wrote to Su
asking for advice on how to continue his work. After Su told this
story, he asked the packed ballroom at the Marriott Marquis, his voice
breaking: “When you think of who does mathematics, do you think of
Christopher?”
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Su grew up in Texas, the son of Chinese parents, in a town that was
predominantly white and Latino. He spoke of trying hard to “act white”
as a kid. He went to college at the University of Texas, Austin, then to
graduate school at Harvard University. In 2015 he became the first
person of color to lead the MAA. In his talk he framed mathematics as a
pursuit uniquely suited to the achievement of human flourishing, a
concept the ancient Greeks called eudaimonia, or a life
composed of all the highest goods. Su talked of five basic human desires
that are met through the pursuit of mathematics: play, beauty, truth,
justice and love.
If mathematics is a medium for human flourishing, it stands to reason
that everyone should have a chance to participate in it. But in his
talk Su identified what he views as structural barriers in the
mathematical community that dictate who gets the opportunity to succeed
in the field — from the requirements attached to graduate school
admissions to implicit assumptions about who looks the part of a budding
mathematician.
When Su finished his talk, the audience rose to its feet and
applauded, and many of his fellow mathematicians came up to him
afterward to say he had made them cry. A few hours later Quanta Magazine
sat down with Su in a quiet room on a lower level of the hotel and
asked him why he feels so moved by the experiences of people who find
themselves pushed away from math. An edited and condensed version of
that conversation and a follow-up conversation follows.
QUANTA
MAGAZINE: The title of your talk was “Mathematics for Human
Flourishing.” Flourishing is a big idea — what do you have in mind by
it?
FRANCIS SU: When I think of human flourishing, I’m thinking of
something close to Aristotle’s definition, which is activity in
accordance with virtue. For instance, each of the basic desires that I
mentioned in my talk is a mark of flourishing. If you have a playful
mind or a playful spirit, or you’re seeking truth, or pursuing beauty,
or fighting for justice, or loving another human being — these are
activities that line up with certain virtues. Maybe a more modern way of
thinking about it is living up to your potential, in some sense, though
I wouldn’t just limit it to that. If I am loving somebody well, that’s
living up to a certain potential that I have to be able to love somebody
well.
And how does mathematics promote human flourishing?
It builds skills that allow people to do things they might otherwise
not have been able to do or experience. If I learn mathematics and I
become a better thinker, I develop perseverance, because I know what
it’s like to wrestle with a hard problem, and I develop hopefulness that
I will actually solve these problems. And some people experience a kind
of transcendent wonder that they’re seeing something true about the
universe. That’s a source of joy and flourishing.
Math helps us do these things. And when we talk about teaching
mathematics, sometimes we forget these larger virtues that we are
seeking to cultivate in our students. Teaching mathematics shouldn’t be
about sending everybody to a Ph.D. program. That’s a very narrow view of
what it means to do mathematics. It shouldn’t mean just teaching people
a bunch of facts. That’s also a very narrow view of what mathematics
is. What we’re really doing is training habits of mind, and those habits
of mind allow people to flourish no matter what profession they go
into.
Several times in your talk you quoted Simone Weil, the French
philosopher (and sibling of the famed mathematician André Weil), who
wrote, “Every being cries out silently to be read differently.” Why did
you choose that quote?
I chose it because it says in a very succinct way what the problem
is, what causes injustice — we judge, and we don’t judge correctly. So
“read” means “judged,” of course. We read people differently than they
actually are.
And how does that apply to the math community?
We do this in lots of different ways. I think part of it is that we
have a picture of who actually can succeed in math. Some of that picture
has been developed because the only examples we’ve seen so far are
people who come from particular backgrounds. We’re not used to, for
instance, seeing African-Americans at a math conference, although it’s
become more and more common.
We’re not used to seeing kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in
college or grad school. So what I was trying to say is: If we’re
looking for talent, why are we choosing for background? If we really
want to have a more diverse set of people in mathematical sciences, we
have to take into account the structural barriers that make it hard for
people from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed in math.
That’s right. At every stage we’re losing people. So if you look at
some of the studies people are doing now about people who take Calculus
1, and how many of them go on to take Calculus 2, you’ll find basically
that we’re losing women and minorities at these critical junctures. This
happens for reasons that we can only speculate about. But I’m sure some
of it has to do with people in these groups not seeing themselves as
belonging in math, possibly because of a negative culture and an
unwelcome climate, or because of things that professors or other
students are doing to discourage people from continuing.
The obvious problem with this attrition is that when mathematics
draws from a smaller pool, we end up with fewer talented mathematicians.
But you emphasized in your speech that denying people math is actually
denying them an opportunity to flourish.
Math can contribute in a broad way to every person’s life whether
that person actually becomes a mathematician or not. The goal of broadly
getting people to appreciate math is not at odds with bringing more
people into deep mathematics. Connect with people in a deep way and
you’re going to draw more people into mathematics. Some of them, more of
them, are going to go to graduate school, and that will necessarily
happen if you address some of these deep desires — for love, truth,
beauty, justice, play. If you address some of these deep themes you’re
going to get more people and a more diverse set of people in deep
mathematics.
Some of those desires are easier to relate to math than others. I
think people have a somewhat intuitive sense of how a desire for truth
or beauty might be realized through math. But you spent a lot of your
talk on justice. How does that relate to mathematics?
Justice is a desire that people have, and so it leads to a certain
virtue which is to become a just person, somebody who cares about
fighting for things that defend basic human dignity. I spent the most
time discussing justice in my talk mainly because I feel that our
mathematics community can do better; we can become more just. I see a
lot of ways in which we can do better and become more virtuous as a
community.
Being
a mathematician in some ways allows us to see things more for what they
are. When people learn not to overgeneralize their arguments, they’re
going to be very careful not to think that if you’re poor you’re
necessarily uneducated or vice versa. Having a mathematical background
certainly helps people to be less governed by their biases.
You’ve been a successful research mathematician, yet you teach at a
small college, Harvey Mudd, that doesn’t have a graduate school. That’s
kind of unusual. Was there a point where you decided you’d prefer to
work at a liberal arts college rather than a big research university?
When I was in graduate school at Harvard I realized I loved teaching,
and I remember one of my professors from college telling me that the
teaching was better at small liberal arts colleges. So when I was on the
job market I started looking at those colleges. I was interested in the
research track and willing to do that, but I was also very attracted to
the liberal arts environment. I chose to go and I love it; I couldn’t
see myself being anywhere else.
And how do you think working at a liberal arts college shapes the way you look at the mathematics community today?
I think one of the things I didn’t address in the talk, but almost
did, is the divide in the community between research universities and
liberal arts colleges. There is a cultural divide, and the research
universities are in some sense the dominant culture because all of us
with Ph.D.s come through research universities. And there’s the whole
pattern of the dominant culture being completely unaware of what’s going
on at the liberal arts colleges. So people come up to me and say: “So,
you’re at Harvey Mudd; are you happy there?” It’s almost like assuming I
wouldn’t be. That happens all the time, so I find it a bit frustrating
to feel like I have to say: “No, this is actually my dream job.”
What are the consequences of this cultural imbalance?
Well, the downsides are, for instance, that many of the people at
research universities would never consider taking students from an
undergraduate college. That’s the downside; they’re missing a lot of
talent. So in many ways the issues are analogous to some of the racial
issues that are going on.
I think professors at research universities often don’t realize that
there are a lot of bright kids coming through the liberal arts colleges.
What I’m addressing is the very common practice right now in certain
graduate schools of only admitting people who’ve already had a full
slate of graduate courses. In other words, they’re expecting
undergraduates to have taken graduate courses before they even get
considered. If you have that kind of structural situation, you are
necessarily going to exclude a bunch of people who otherwise might be
successful.
One barrier you mentioned in your talk arises when senior professors don’t teach introductory classes. Tell me about that.
I’m being a little provocative here as well. I think what that
communicates is: “This is not an important enough segment of people for
me to put my attention to.” I’m certainly not saying everybody who only
teaches senior-level courses has this attitude, but I am saying there
are a lot of people who think the math major is basically there for the
benefit of students who are going to get a Ph.D. That’s a problem.
At
the Joint Mathematics Meetings there were a number of prizes
specifically for women, and a number of women gave invited talks. Has
the math community made more progress on gender equality than on racial
inclusiveness?
Definitely, racial inclusiveness has not come as far or as fast as
gender inclusiveness. Currently about 27 percent of people with Ph.D.s,
faculty members, are women, and about 30 percent of the ones who won
awards in teaching and service are women. So we’re actually doing pretty
well on that front. With our writing awards, which are awards for
research and exposition — the fraction of women winning those awards is
lower.
Can you look at the process by which gender equality has improved
and draw any lessons from that about how to improve racial equality in
math?
Many of the practices that work to encourage women in math also work
for minorities. Part of the issue here is that there just aren’t that
many minorities who come into college interested in doing STEM majors.
So there’s something that happened at the secondary and primary school
level, and it would help a lot if we could figure out what’s going on
there.
You used the metaphor of a “secret menu” in Chinese restaurants. What did you mean by that?
If you go to an authentic restaurant in a big city in New York or
California, if you are not Chinese they will give you a standard menu
that has things in English and Chinese. But if you’re Chinese, they’ll
give you a different menu. Often it’s a menu that is written completely
in Chinese and has some additional options that aren’t on the standard
menu. And I think that happens in the math community. If you talk to
women and minorities they will often tell you they’ve had experiences
where people discouraged them from going on, either because they don’t
think a woman should be in math, or for other reasons. So I used the
metaphor “secret menu” to mean: Do we have a secret menu? And who gets
to look at it?
You told a story about a student who was counseled by a professor to
choose a different major on the grounds that the student wasn’t good
enough to stick with math. Is that common?
I think it’s common. Of course we don’t have any data, but I’ve
certainly talked to enough people who’ve had those kinds of experiences
to know that it’s very frequent and most of those people are women and
minorities.
It’s been almost a month since you gave your speech, and it’s
generated a lot of attention on the internet and among mathematicians.
What kinds of responses have you received?
Most of the comments have come from people who are grateful to me for
mentioning things that haven’t necessarily been discussed, but also for
identifying some of the deep, underlying things that cause us to do
what we do. I think a lot of people, especially women and minorities,
have expressed to me how important it was for somebody to say that.
We’ve been having discussions like this in smaller conversations, and a
lot of time it’s preaching to the choir, and so having somebody say that
in a big address at the national meeting I think felt important and
helpful to them.