Calculus, Empathy, and Single Mothers, or, Living between Heaven and Hell

BY DREW O’KANE

I have a small confession to make. I sometimes wonder what good all my education is going to do humanity. What benefit will the people of the world gain from my learning about Kepler’s Laws of Planetary motion? How is l’Hôpital’s Rule going to feed starving children in inner city Oakland? I suppose that I could come up with very convoluted arguments about how my understanding of the inner workings of quantum mechanics helps children in Africa find a better life amidst the poverty and violence that surrounds them, but I really am in a sorry situation here. If I can’t help the world around me, am I just taking up space, living my selfish, consumerist life? Or worse?

But this dilemma is not confined to myself alone. More than a few of my fellow peers have the same nagging doubts. The dilemma poses a question of deeper significance: “Am I actually harming humankind by the mere fact that I am obtaining a degree in political science from the most prestigious public university in the world?” And when you stop to consider how much is being spent on higher education by each student per semester, on the order of $6000 to $8000, and consider the number of people who live on merely $2.50 a day, nearly half the world according to the World Bank, you can’t help but stop and imagine what good all that money could do elsewhere. This dilemma is almost sinister in its implications. We are not merely not contributing to humankind in a tangible way, with our newly acquired educations, but we may actually be hurting humankind by wasting money on fruitless educational pursuits.

“Harsh, untrue words!” I hear you cry, plaintively at your laptop screen while sitting outside in the sun at Caffe Strada, sipping your $2.45 latte. Perhaps. But I wish to elaborate on this with a personal story.

Before I became a California Golden Bear (Go Bears!), I spent the first three years of my college career in junior college. Specifically, I spent two of those years studying at Contra Costa College (Go Comets!), located in San Pablo, California. For those of you who might not be familiar with local geography, San Pablo is literally surrounded by Richmond, one of the more violent cities in California.

Halfway through my time at Contra Costa College, I happened to get the opportunity to work as a tutor in the math lab. I’m not sure what I expected to happen. I must admit, though, that I had an unconscious ideal of what my time in the math lab would be like. I would be the brilliant, successful student who knew math like the back of his hand and would bring the light of calculus to all who asked. You can well imagine how that ended.

Far from enlightening all who came, I most often found myself helping fellow students with Algebra I and II. My plan of bringing the delights of higher math to my peers was quickly replaced by a more mundane reality of helping people understand how to graph linear equations and solve for x. I felt as if God had looked at my innate talents, and told me to use my least favorite ones.

As it turned out, I learned a lot more about my classmates than that they needed help with algebraic word problems. I met high school students who wanted, or needed, to pass algebra so they could graduate and get out of San Pablo. I met college-bound students who were only there to fulfill enough requirements to transfer out at the soonest possible moment. But perhaps the group that made the deepest impact on me was those single mothers wanting to go to nursing school and struggling to pass algebra. Not because they merely wanted to move on to college, but because they needed it to survive.

At this point, you may be wondering what my point is. I seem to have completely divested myself of any reason for attaining a higher education, and have made an extremely good argument for me to drop out now and become a high school teacher in the slums so that at least some will have an opportunity to live better lives.

But things are rarely ever this simple.

The same God who led me to the math lab at Contra Costa College, the same God who made me a Comet, also gave me the opportunity to be a California Golden Bear. This same God allowed me to come to Berkeley.

Herein lies an uncomfortable tension that I, or maybe more correctly, we, live in. We are given staggeringly heartbreaking glimpses of the poverty and violence by our Heavenly Father. We are given, by the same Heavenly Father, sublime visions of how His community gathers around the hurt and broken, and heals them. We get to see both the wonders of Heaven and the terrors of Hell, and we happen to live in between.

I will leave you with two thoughts, neither of which gets rid of the tension. On the one hand, we cannot ignore the vision of Hell that we are given. We cannot help but be moved to reach down and give a cup of water to those in need. My time in the math lab moved me to want to help. Great need exists all around us, and we must not stand idle. We cannot let poverty and lack of education destroy our cities. We cannot ignore our classmates and peers who are searching desperately for meaning in their dorms, labs, and lecture halls. We cannot ignore our friends who desperately need us to listen.

And in most, if not all these cases, God doesn’t need the academic abilities that we have learned while we were at Cal. We are not grand and glorious saviors; we are but humble vessels. God wants us, not our skills and abilities. Our listening ears, eager feet, and willing hands are all that is required. Kepler’s laws do not show us how to love our neighbor. Art history does not tell us how to listen with patience and kindness to a roommate who just broke up with his significant other. All we need to do is be these things. No diploma required.

On the other hand, what of the gifts God has given us? Why has God given us the skills to design buildings that will withstand earthquakes? Why has God given us the intuition to write sublime poetry? Why has God given us the desire to know all we can about His marvelous creation?

What then shall I do? Shall I sell all I posses, give the money to the poor, and follow Christ, as the rich young ruler is told? I cannot give you a clear answer. I can’t even come to a clear conclusion myself.

I live between Heaven and Hell. I look toward Heaven and see my Heavenly Father’s boundless love for me. And my heart breaks. Then I look toward Hell, seeing with the eyes of Christ that were given to me, and my heart breaks. Christ compels me to love the lost found in Hell’s desolation.

I do, perhaps, know one thing. God first loved me, and when I look around me, in lab, on Sproul, on the steps of Doe, I know He wants me to love those around me. And wherever I am, whether at ccc or UC Berkeley, I am to love those around me. We can love, whether we stay in our dorms or make the trip into inner city Oakland. But we must love, because He first loved us. For these two things make up the Law: love God, and love your neighbor. Wherever you happen to be.

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2 thoughts on “Calculus, Empathy, and Single Mothers, or, Living between Heaven and Hell

  1. “The most prestigious university in the world.” Do they teach you to say that there? Is it like a mantra to make all the bull easier to swallow? Personally, I think Moscow State University is more prestigious, but that’s a matter of taste. The point is, calling something prestigious is like masturbation, it feels good but doesn’t do very much.

  2. @ Matthew Barclay:

    Isn’t prestige rather a matter of group consensus than of individual preferences? Sure, it’s not an objective measure of quality either, but it’s more a group subjectivity than an individual subjectivity.

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