Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Man Who Counted

I recently received the following email from a reader:
Hi, I bought your book, The Catholic Homeschool Companion, at a homeschool conference. My question is about the article titled “Using Saxon Math Effectively” found on pages 17-26. In your article, you refer readers to many math literature books. Trusting a fellow Catholic, I just assumed the referenced books would be of Catholic standards or at least with nothing contrary to our faith in them. So it was with great shock and disappointment that when I requested the book, “The Man Who Counted: A Collection of Mathematical Adventures” by Malba Tahan from our local library and found such non-Catholic material on the very first page in the very first sentence. The first sentence of this book states and I quote, “In the name of Allah, the All-Merciful!” This is not Catholic nor is it something that I would expect to find any Catholic writer to refer readers to be helpful in their homeschooling. And it certainly isn’t something I want to read to my children and instill in their minds. I was just wondering what your reasoning was for including this particular book as acceptable material and will I find any more books referred to throughout your book that are unacceptable to the Catholic faith?

I responded privately to the writer, but I would also like to address this publicly as I assume that others will have similar concerns.

First, I respect the writer's opinion and I appreciate that she wrote to me to get my side of the story. I do think she makes a very good point. I disagree that The Man Who Counted is contrary to our faith, but I should have been more clear in the book's description about the references to Allah and Islam and I should have given a stronger warning.

Note that I also recommend The Man Who Counted in For the Love of Literature and it remains one of my very favorite pieces of math literature.

I first discovered The Man Who Counted on MacBeth Derham's website. MacBeth is a wonderfully dedicated Catholic homeschooler. I've also seen the book reviewed positively on a host of Catholic homeschooling blogs and websites, as well as Heart and Mind Magazine.

Being a math geek, I fell in love with it. The number puzzles presented in real life situations is a great way to get kids excited about math. Even the non math geeks will love it! So much better than dry textbooks.

Mathematics, by its very nature as a universal language, is a discipline that has benefited from the insights of many cultures, especially the Arabic cultures. While we should not promote other faiths, we can surely take the good work of people from other faiths. We can find the good, the true, and the beautiful. Have we not done that with math all along? Our very numbers are Arabic; Roman numerals are terribly cumbersome. Then there are all of the advanced mathematical endeavors they pursued. Algebra is an Arabic word. We've even been able to learn from the Mayans in the area of mathematics.

The Man Who Counted is a book about numbers. That a Muslim recognizes the beauty of mathematics is not antithetical to our faith, but a testament to God who created the universe. All men of intellect see the beauty of His creation in mathematics, whether they recognize Him or not.

Interestingly enough, the author of The Man Who Counted is a good Catholic man from Brazil. In the original book (written in Portuguese) the last chapter tells of the protagonist finding Christian Truth. This was left out of the English (British) version, which is no less than a mortal sin in the profession of scholarly translation as well as a mortal sin period imo.

Also interesting is the fact that Arab speaking Christians refer to God as Allah.

These are all things I point out to my children when reading The Man Who Counted. I see this book as historical fiction as well as a math book. And then there is the whole apologetics angle -- teaching about Islam and Christian Truth.
As homeschoolers, all subjects can be interdisciplinary. There is not line between "math time" and "social studies time."

The opening phrase can be skipped. I sometimes use the black marker method and black out offensive phrases. This is why I recommend parents pre-reading their children's books. Even good orthodox Catholics can disagree on what makes a good book.

One final note, it would be impossible to give my children a solid education if I only used books by Catholics, completely free of error. It would mean leaving out Dickens and Lewis. It would mean skipping Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece. The important thing to me is to present these books to my children baptized in the Catholic Faith -- giving them Church teaching on issues that come up as we read. Issues they will be faced with when they go out into the real world.


MacBeth Derham said...

Great points, Maureen! It's definitely a book worth reading for all the reasons you stated. And as a homeschooler, I find that interdisciplinary works make my job way easier. I love bringing in different subjects during math makes math real and memorable by giving us contextual clues to its origins. Hooray for The Man Who Counted (and other living math books!!).

Anonymous said...


This is how I feel about using outside sources. I feel the areas of religion and history we have to be wary of, and sometimes literature. But until recently there were NO Catholic math books.

I have bought texts and supplies from Christian (but not Catholic) sources. I think we have to be careful, but the world is NOT pro-Catholic. It is a mistake to shelter them from other faiths and opinions. Having differing opinions now and then is an excellent time to reinforce why the Faith has it right, but to be kindly and understanding of others who just haven't or won't accept the True Faith.

All parents, as that one encyclical states, are the first teachers and never stop being responsible for what their children are taught. But I wish there weren't so many purists out there. Especially those who tell me I can't use anything that isn't Catholic. I really have to think about it. Is there a Catholic material just as good? Are they really being anti-Catholic or are they simply presenting a worldview? What is behind this or that? Is it harmful or nonexistent or an opportunity for an apologetics moment?

This is an interesting topic in itself. And an important one IMHO.
As a family who leans toward classical education, I believe in starting with the truth and keeping it simple in the early years. But during the logic and rhetoric stages of adolescence, I want to start adding in some critical analysis of outside beliefs and contrasting it with what has been taught up til then. also where do these beliefs head us?

Just kinda going off on tangents. So I'll stop here.
Good Night.

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Friar Suppliers said...

Well said Maureen! I'm glad you cleared up the question. I never found the book objectionable since I thought of it as a math book and treated it accordingly. Now I'm going to include your points in our lessons as well. Thank you.

Renee said...

Maureen, I've never read the book but we do use a non-Catholic curriculum (Tapestry of Grace) and some folks wonder why I don't stick with all Catholic. Your last paragraph was a great summary of what I felt but was unable to put into words.

Anonymous said...

If you love Sudoku puzzles, you'll love The Man Who Counted!

iva said...

Btw, I have just read the Portuguese original and I have found out that the final of the book is ommitted in English version (I have two copies here - English and Portuguese).
So, at the end of the book it is said that Telassim became a Christian even before marriage and Beremiz followed her and than the true hapiness, says Beremiz, could be found only in Christianity...