I had an epiphany while reading the first chapter, entitled "Why Truth Is Your Enemy and the Benefits of the Vague," and it made me really angry. In the midst of explaining how to make any subject dull, Anthony Esolen turns to mathematics. "There can't possibly be any imagination in manipulating numbers, right?" He answers the question by first talking about memorizing math facts and rules of operation, which are dull enough in themselves, but then warns the reader that having a kid full of that kind of fact is really quite dangerous if you're trying to produce a dull, unimaginative mind, lacking in insight and initiative. To illustrate the danger, he pulls a problem from the classic math text, Ray's New Higher Arithmetic (1880) -- "Multiply 387295 by 216324."
Simple drudgery, you say. Ah, but here's the trick of it. Do the operation by performing only three sets of multiplication. That is, 216324 has six digits in it, and you'd think, if you were not imaginative with numbers, that you would therefore have to perform six sets of multiplication, first by 4, then by 2, and so on. It isn't so.
The trick is to see -- and imagination is a power that allows us to combine things and recombine them, seeing them anew every time -- that 216324 has a pretty set of digits. It has a 3, and a 24, and a 216. But 3 x 8 = 24, and 24 x 9 = 216. These things you just know; they are tools for your cleverness to fool about with, as a machinist learns the feel of a wrench or a drill press. This means that if you multiply by the 3 first, putting the product...
... and then he goes on spouting some gibberish explaining how easy it is to multiply those horrendous numbers in Three Easy Steps. Only I don't "just know" what he suggests I should because I never learned my eights, and don't know my threes very well, either. I know my nines, but only up to eleven, so "24 x 9 = 216" is something I have to figure out either with pencil and paper or by skip-counting.
Esolen describes this facility with numbers as "play." That's when I had my epiphany. I used to LOVE playing with numbers and number patterns. When I was seven or eight years old I invented a pattern that goes like this: 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34... It's only been a few years ago that I learned that some Italian guy nearly a thousand years ago first wrote about that pattern, so it's called a Fibonacci Sequence in his honor.
Anyone who knows me at all knows that I'm terrible at math. I'm so bad at it that I've taken to bragging about it as an act of bravado. I hate math because I was so bad at it in school -- well, starting around the fourth grade. Before that I was really good at it and enjoyed it. I don't know what changed in the fourth grade, but by the sixth grade I was happy if I got a "D" in math because that meant I wouldn't have to repeat the class.
But according to Esolen, playing with numbers IS math!
I felt the same way during my oldest child's first year of formal education. We were reading Margaret Pumphrey's book Stories of the Pilgrims as our history text, and thoroughly enjoying it. I've always loved reading about people who lived Long Ago, and finding out what they thought and seeing how they dressed and so forth. But I hated "History" as a subject in school -- we had to memorize names and dates of battles and treaties and whocaresaboutallthatstuff -- so it was a pleasant revelation to find out that, actually, I loved history. But pleasure quickly turned to anger that my schooling made me think I hated it.
Several years later, it slowly dawned on me that, even though I had hated studying Poetry in school, I loved poetry. I've figured out why that's the case: In school, you study poetry by killing and dissecting poems.
I suppose that that's what they do with History and Math, too.
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On a more cheerful note, I now have a new favorite sentence: That sixteen-line-long feast of words and ideas and humorous commentary from Henry Fielding's Jacob Andrews that Esolen quotes earlier in chapter one.
I won't quote it just now, but I will say that if you haven't read Joseph Andrews you really should -- it's delightful. But first you have to prepare yourself by reading Samuel Richardson's Pamela, followed by Fielding's Shamela. Then and only then can you fully appreciate Joseph Andrews.