Little Grey Man

Well I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know. — Socrates

People who do maths at university have told me that the stuff that they teach you at school is all wrong. It doesn’t really work like they tell you it does at school, but (presumably) teaching people to work effectively with wrong principles is easier than the truth.


The Truth. You can't handle it.

I had very little idea what wrong maths was on about at school, so who knows whether it was wise to keep the truth from us in that way? Would we even have noticed?

If I may digress for a moment, I wonder why they even bother teaching maths the way that they do at high school? I remember my teacher had a ‘motivational’ wall chart that listed all the professions for which maths was necessary. ‘DJ’ was a stand-out propaganda piece. Very few professions actually require knowledge of trigonometry, least of all a human ‘shuffle’ function for dance albums. I guess once you start lying about how maths works it becomes easier to start lying about all sorts of things. Who would have thought that maths was such a moral grey-area?

Given that many of the students in our degree programme can’t structure an argument and don’t know anything about logic, I can think of some skills that you do regularly use in real life that might be a better use of the teaching time (and could employ maths in a fun way).

All this is by way of illustration of something else that arose in discussion with friends. There was some or other difficult idea about which it was clear that the truth was grey and uncertain. This raised the question: does a minister teach the complicated grey version on Sunday, or is it better to portray a simplified version in tidy black-and-white, in order to inspire more confidence?

Most ministers seem to opt for the latter, but I don’t think we should, certainly not as often as we do. We turn Christians with whom we disagree into heroes or heretics (John Calvin fits into either camp, depending on who you ask). We turn issues of debate and careful reflection into drawn battle-lines. As the illustration about maths teachers was meant to illustrate, perhaps thinking of our listeners as fragile and childlike and in need of protection from the grown-up truth is unnecessary? At least maths teachers are actually teaching children, and their subject gets forgotten before anyone reaches adulthood. But polarising moral and spiritual issues? Of course there are dangers in the grey areas too, and we mustn’t become lost in a sea of relativity and doubt, but I think — with Socrates — we should acknowledge that learning wisdom involves acknowledging what we know with some certainty (what is actually black and actually white), but also what we don’t.