The universe is inherently mathematical. Many scientists have come to this realization, but one of the first was Galileo Galilei. In his book, The Assayer, he wrote:
[The universe] cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it.
I have always been intrigued by people who dedicate themselves to learning this language, and I had the privilege of interviewing one such person last week: Mathematics Ph.D. student Bethel McGrew.
Bethel was homeschooled K-12, and her experience produced a lifelong love of learning, whether the topic was literature, science, music, or chess (she has been a competitive tournament player but can now proudly say she is no longer the highest-rated among her siblings!) She didn’t do much with co-ops or group activities, and in some ways, I would say that her experience was that of a “classic” homeschooler. Her family used curriculum when it fit their needs, and when it didn’t, they found some other way to get the job done. For example, she said that her family couldn’t find a good course for geometry, so she just read Euclid.
In case you don’t know who that is, he’s the father of geometry. His treatise, Elements, was written around 300 BC and is considered one of the most important works of mathematics to this day. That was her primary reference for learning high school geometry! This was common in her homeschooling, perhaps because her parents (each has a Ph.D.) were so academically inclined. She read many primary sources as a part of her secondary education. For example, she read the works of Josephus (a first-century Jewish historian) to learn more about the history of New Testament times.
While her homeschooling experience was quite classic, her higher education was more modern. She started with distance-learning courses from Christian universities like Patrick Henry College and Bryan College. She then transferred to Western Michigan University in her home town of Kalamazoo and continued living at home while she finished her undergraduate degree. She originally thought she would pursue a career in philosophy (the field of her father’s Ph.D. and her mother’s main professional research focus) but decided to double major in philosophy and mathematics, discovering an unexpected love for the latter when some professors helped her see the beauty of math. She was offered and accepted a teaching assistantship to pursue a Ph.D. there. As a TA, she has taught everything from algebra to applied calculus, adding occasional long-distance tutoring work on the side with Asian ESL (English as a second language) students. She has earned her master’s degree en route and is currently beginning work on her dissertation in graph theory.
While I could write hundreds and hundreds of words about this amazing young woman, I would rather spend time quoting her, since she has some great wisdom to share. For example, she doesn’t shy from the word “creationist,” although her old-Earth framework for understanding creation diverges from mine. Despite that fact, I wholeheartedly agree with her advice to students when it comes to that issue:
Familiarize yourself with the debate so you are not caught off guard. Don’t be afraid to question the evolutionary paradigm, but be sure you understand it so that you know how to critique it.
This is one of the biggest gripes I have with many of my fellow creationists. They try to critique the theory when they don’t really understand it to begin with!
She also has great advice for homeschooling parents. For example, she says:
The transition to college education will be much smoother if parents do these three things:
1. Administer timed tests.
2. Hold the line on grades.
3. Set and stick to deadlines.
Homeschooling, by its very nature, is flexible, and that is good in many ways. However, as the student gets older, he or she should be trained for a world that is significantly more rigid. Bethel said that her parents did all three of the things listed above, and she was grateful that they did. She was also grateful to have been taught to read very early by the phonics method and has since passed it on in a unique way:
My proudest achievement as a teacher was teaching one of my little South Korean students to read English words with phonics, even though we couldn’t talk to each other!
While her parents might be considered “overqualified” homeschoolers, she wants to encourage any parent who would like to keep their kids at home but feels daunted by the prospect:
You really can do this… You don’t have to be exceptional to give your child an exceptional education at home. It will be rewarding. I guarantee it.
How will it be rewarding? She answers that question perfectly:
Homeschooling allowed me to develop a deep, special bond with my parents. It made me an old soul.
We should all strive for such a bond with our children. Homeschooling gave that to me and my daughter, and it gave that to Bethel and her parents. It can also give that to you and your children.
In addition, she has a few words for people on the outside looking in at homeschoolers and their culture:
Please, just educate yourself more before you make snap judgments and cheap jokes about the homeschooling community. I am discouraged when I see even fellow Christians who do not understand the rigor and excellence that are regularly instilled in kids with my background. I see a lot of ignorance out there.
What does this wise young lady plan to do with her Ph.D. in mathematics? She says:
This degree has been a challenge to myself, to see if I could take what was once my weakness and turn it into a strength. But I hold the idea of a career lightly. I really want to have a family and homeschool my own kids. I am passionate about teaching. I would enjoy working at a community college and just making mathematics accessible for students. I am not getting my degree solely to have a career. I am getting a degree to develop my talents and be the best me that I can be right now.
I can’t imagine a better motivation for getting a degree.
As her own words reveal, Bethel McGrew is wise beyond her years. I count it a privilege to share her story and her advice with my readers. When she’s not doing math, you can find her doing a variety of things, including singing, song-writing, and arranging hymns for piano. You can buy her self-produced gospel album Having Church wherever digital music is sold. Enjoy a sample on her YouTube channel here!