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In Defense of Light and Magic

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Following an engineering degree and a stint in the Air Force, I taught high-school mathematics for three years, before eventually becoming a university mathematics professor. Why the change of direction, and why math? Nearly four decades after that sudden tack, a young woman came to my office requesting a letter of recommendation and answered these questions better than I could have. "Why do you want to teach math?" I asked, curious about what motivates today's aspiring teacher and why she would choose a subject that is the bane of many. After a hesitant pause, she responded, "Well, math is sort of like" -- her eyes lit up -- "magic!"

Einstein thought so too and asked, "How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?" That is, why does mathematics, an abstract language dreamed up in the human mind, so perfectly describe the orbits of the planets, the timbre of an oboe, or the probability of finding an electron at a particular location in its orbital? It's an amazing coincidence, thought aligning with reality. I teach mathematics because it is magic. Truth be told, all subjects are magical if approached in the right way. But I'm getting ahead of my story.

I grew up in a small West Virginia town on the border of Appalachia, belonged to a religious denomination that skated close to fundamentalism, and adopted parental values lock, stock, and barrel. The conservative value system that served me as a youngster was crushing my soul as I neared 30 underemployed, unmarried, and unaware of the wider world. Like the Grinch's heart, my worldview was at least three sizes too small. Something had to give.

I took the first tentative step beyond my shell when, eight years after earning an undergraduate degree, I entered the University of Virginia (UVA) to begin a master's degree in applied mathematics. The door then opened to challenging and rewarding work with a small aerospace firm. My employer later confessed that he'd never seen anyone grow professionally so much in such a short time.

Sensing liberation and hungry to keep growing, I returned to UVA for a Ph.D. Unexpectedly, the move provoked an existential crisis. In retrospect, the crisis was a gift, for it forced me to do what author, educator, and activist Parker Palmer calls "heart work" -- confronting the discrepancy between who we are and who we wish to be. I began a painful but necessary process of sloughing off the outdated worldview to make way for a new one that was not hand-me-down. Further growth demanded a bold step. I transferred to the University of Arizona, leaving behind the familiar and comfortable.

My dominant impression during those first weeks in Tucson was of the unusually pure quality of the light, so different from the diffuse light back east that renders everything subdued. In contrast, the Arizona sky shone deep-blue, rock formations blazed in an amazing spectrum of earth tones, sunsets glowed brilliant-orange, and cacti turned radiant in the late afternoon, their translucent spines aglow when backlit. Like a houseplant too long kept in a windowless room, I thrived on that light. I'm a mountain boy of the Appalachians, and I still love their lush green, but I came to love the austere beauty of the desert Southwest and the Arizona "mountain islands" from whose summits one drinks in tens of thousands of square miles. I left few of Arizona's charms -- its canyons, mountains, parks, mining towns, and pueblos -- unexplored.

I became a world traveler, tentative at first, going just across the border to Nogales, Sonora, to find a good chile relleno, and later to Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city. I then spent the summer of 1984 at the University of Stuttgart, the alma mater of my advisor. Friendships established there with German colleagues persist to this day. Back in Tucson I met my wife, who was undergoing her own metamorphosis, a few steps ahead of me. She opened my eyes to the travails of Latin Americans who live under the shadow of El Norte, to the sanctuary movement, and to liberation theology.

I recall so wistfully those four years in Tucson. It was a time of immense personal transformation. Whatever our purpose on Earth, certainly in large part it involves growing: physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. What, then, are the stimuli of growth?

In my experience, there are two primary ingredients: courage and education. Growth involves risk; it takes courage to get over the hump of risk. That means courage to leave the familiar, courage to question the status quo, courage to challenge one's -- or one's society's -- assumptions, and courage to live with ambiguity when one is in the awful yet exhilarating limbo of transition.

Education is also key, whether formal or informal. Education forges the synapses that make possible a new and healthier mode of being. Education is the closest thing we have to a genie in a bottle. It's the magic elixir that empowers us to transcend our limitations. It liberates the oppressed, whether oppressed by the "system" or, in my case, by a constrictive worldview. At its best, education makes us realize that we are not alone but integral parts of an intricate web. Education helps us grasp the trajectory of where we have been through the lens of history and projects us into the future along the arc of evolution. Ultimately, education, regardless of discipline, points to the greatest truth of the oldest discipline -- philosophy -- as expressed in the three most seminal words of the Upanishads: "That are thou." What looks separate is not. The "other" is as sacred as you are, because there is no "other." Like the aspen grove, beneath outward appearances, we "individual" trees stem from the same roots.

Originally, one attended a "university" to study the universe and to seek one's niche in it. The best universities are still such places, where the connections that bind us to one another and to the cosmos are unveiled. Being an educator -- helping students celebrate the mystery and explore the connections -- is, on good days, magical indeed.

Today's America has lost the magic and is being torn asunder by a clash of worldviews not unlike those on either side of my personal transformation. One worldview is narrow, fearful, parochial, and ultimately destructive. The other is open, inclusive, hopeful, and healing. Nowhere is the battle for the heart and soul of America fiercer than in the field of education. Subsequent posts will explore the dimensions and stakes of this battle.

According to Ursula King of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Bristol, Dave Pruett's Reason and Wonder (Praeger, 2012) "opens up [an expansive worldview] of true audacity and grandeur that will change your thinking forever."