Rockbridge Academy Blog
Classical Christian Math?
If you look up the course offerings at my local public high school, you’ll notice some stark differences between their classes and those offered here at Rockbridge Academy. Instead of Literature of Antiquity, you’ll see English 11. Instead of theology courses like Bibliology and Hermeneutics, you’ll find Honors Comparative Religions. I think it’s probably safe to say that Rockbridge will never offer Business of Fashion. I’m equally sure that, were the roles reversed, someone looking at our course catalog would wonder what in the world Great Ideas I and II are all about!
Despite these obvious differences, there is one area where our course catalogues are quite similar; in fact, every single class we offer in this discipline is also taught at my local public school under the exact same name. I’m speaking, of course, of mathematics. You can find all our classes, from Pre-Algebra to Calculus, at any middle or high school down the street from you.
Does this mean that a public-school math class and a Rockbridge math class are the same? They have the exact same name after all!
The answer is a resounding no!
To be sure, there are many similarities between Rockbridge math classes and public-school math classes. The math concepts themselves do not change of course, and we all want students to be proficient in problem solving and successful in any future mathematical endeavors.
These similarities are far from the whole story, however. There are many differences between Rockbridge math classes and those in other educational settings. These differences arise because we do not have the same educational paradigm. Rockbridge teaches math from a classical, Christian perspective; other educational institutions do not.
What does this look like? Both pieces, classical and Christian, profoundly affect the way Rockbridge math teachers teach our classes.
To teach math classically has many components. First, there is an emphasis on conceptual understanding and eloquent expression of that understanding. We want our students to deeply grasp the concepts they are learning. We do not merely want them to know how to solve a particular problem; we also want them to understand the mathematical principles at play in that problem. Furthermore, we want them to express their understanding in an eloquent way. This occurs through informal class discussion, where students consistently use technical math vocabulary, and through formal assessments such as oral presentations and essay questions. (Yes–you read that right–there are essay questions on our math tests!) Putting an idea into words is an excellent metric to judge true understanding, and we require this often in our math classes.
A second aspect of classical mathematics is an emphasis on history and historical context. We try to give our students a sense of where each concept falls in math history and discuss the important mathematicians who contributed the ideas, as well as where they fit into the larger context of world history. While we are not having daily history lessons (our class time is focused on mathematical content proper!), providing historical context whenever possible is a key component of classical mathematics classes.
A third element of classical mathematics is an emphasis on the integration of ideas, both within our classes and with the rest of the curriculum. Mathematics is an internally consistent body of knowledge, and we want our students to see how each concept they are learning integrates into one cohesive whole. We also want our students to see how mathematics is integrated with the rest of the curriculum. The most obvious point of integration is with science, which uses math as a language to model natural phenomena. While this is the clearest place for integration, it is far from the only place! Mathematics teaches us about aesthetics, much of its vocabulary has Latin roots, it has its own history as I mentioned above, and it engenders many interesting philosophical discussions.
Mathematics can even tell us about theology, or, more properly, theology can tell us a lot about mathematics. This leads us to the Christian component of a classical, Christian math classroom. We believe and teach our students that studying math gives us a glimpse into the mind of the Creator. The consistency, orderliness, logic, and creativity of God are all reflected in math, and in a world where relativism is the ideology of the day, math provides a picture of the objectivity and certainty of God’s Word. By studying math, students learn about the character and goodness of God. Ultimately, mathematics class is an opportunity to worship the creator of mathematics.
We certainly hope each of our students learns a lot of math concepts, expresses them clearly, understands the historical context, and can integrate ideas inside and outside the mathematics curriculum. We hope most of all, however, that our students walk away filled with wonder for our great Creator.
While there are many excellent math classes at schools of all kinds across the country where students build conceptual understanding, hone problem-solving skills, and become equipped for future callings, only in a classical, Christian math class do students get an excellent mathematical education from an explicitly Christian worldview.
So do not be fooled by the fact that our classes have the same name. The classical, Christian math classes at Rockbridge Academy are significantly different from the math classes at the local public school. And we math teachers wouldn’t have it any other way!
Monica Davis has taught all manner of 10th through 12th grade math classes at Rockbridge Academy for the last 9 years. When she is not delighting in math with her students, she enjoys cooking, baking, going for walks, and spending time with friends and family, especially her baby Theo and husband Josh, who is a Rockbridge Academy alumnus from the Class of 2004.
Three Lessons from the Thesis Process
When people asked me “What do you teach?”, I would sometimes say, “A research, writing, and speech class for juniors and seniors. It’s called ‘rhetoric.’” But it is more than that: rhetoric is a capstone of a liberal arts education, and success is measured less in information or skills students acquire (research, writing, speech) than in the kind of people students become. Don’t misunderstand me—we cover a lot of information in rhetoric, from the sonnet structure to the power of MLK Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. . . . But the core of a liberal arts education is for students to become self-disciplined, independent learners who can serve the world with their wisdom. The junior and senior thesis projects are opportunities for students to do just that.
First, the thesis is an exercise in self-discipline. The final product does not come about in a day’s work. Students must determine a worthwhile topic, develop a feasible research question, track down trusted resources, understand experts on all sides, glean pertinent evidence, develop their own ideas, organize their thoughts into an outline, articulate their argument in clear writing, turn their written argument into a compelling speech, present their argument before an audience, and answer that audience’s questions. Don’t worry—we lay out many, many checkpoints, with feedback and instruction along the way. But the ability to accomplish such a project takes practice (part of the reason for including both a junior and a senior thesis in the curriculum), and students who try to track down the necessary sources the night before the note cards are due learn the pain of procrastination.
Second, the thesis is an exercise in independent study. I frequently tell my students that my goal is to work myself out of a job, meaning that I want them to no longer need a teacher in order to learn whatever they want. Students of a liberal arts education should be prepared to tackle the topics that come their way, and the thesis projects are an opportunity for students to put their ability to the test. From nuclear energy to separation of church and state, from embryonic stem-cell research to the value of fairy tales, the thesis topics are as varied as the students’ interests. The thesis shows they have the skills to be lifelong learners, coming to biblically-grounded conclusions with less and less direction from a teacher.
Finally, the thesis is an exercise in sharing ideas with an audience. Over the years, I have been inspired by lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “IF”: “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, / Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, . . . / Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, / And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!” I want my students to be able to speak before both kings and commoners with virtue and clarity. The Apostle Paul gives a biblical model of this in his own ministry and charges us in Ephesians 4 to use our skills to build up the body of Christ. I know I have been built up by listening to many thesis presentations from my students. They have done the hard work of thinking and writing, and at the end of the year they have shared their work with others through public presentations.
The rhetoric work of Rockbridge students has frequently reached a wider audience through speech competitions such as the Rotary Club 4-Way Test speech competition, the VFW Voice of Democracy competition, and the Association of Classical Christian Schools Chrysostom Oratory competition. These audiences have recognized the excellence of our students’ work on a state and national level. Many students, though, celebrate triumphs that never gain accolades at award ceremonies—persevering through an apparent dead-end in research, finding the perfect phrasing for a sentence, and learning to listen to classmates who disagree and to seek biblical unity on difficult issues.
In his small book The Idea of a Christian College, Arthur F. Holmes captures part of my aim in teaching: “To teach a person to read and to write is to teach him to think for himself, to develop more fully the possession of his God-given powers” (p. 31). In some sense, I am still teaching students to read and write. They are simply reading academic journals and writing a 20-page persuasive essay. But in response to “What do you teach?” maybe I should say, “I am helping students develop their God-given powers,” and I’ve found the thesis to be a helpful tool towards that end.
Emily Scheie is a teacher who is grateful to share the joy of learning with her students. Outside the classroom, you might find her coaching cross country, taking graduate classes in linguistics, or reading for book club (with a mug of tea in hand). She is a sister to six siblings and three siblings-in-law and is an aunt to a growing number of nieces and nephews. She worships and serves with Redeemer Anglican Church in Annapolis and believes, in the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”