And He Began to Teach Them Many Things

And He Began to Teach Them Many Things: An Interview with Professor Matthew Harrison

For the Fall 2014 issue, Matthew Harrison wrote an article called “Invited to Care” about his calling to teach mathematics to those in prison.

EJ: When did you write the article?

MH: I wrote it about a year ago, I got some feedback from some friends and then submitted it to Cornerstone. I always had some of a little bit unexplained interest in doing work involved with prison—I didn’t know exactly what it was. I remember thinking about how I could get involved. The only thing that seemed feasible for me was teaching; I wasn’t a clergyman, and I didn’t do any social work. So I thought, maybe I could teach. I looked it up, you know, wondering, “Do they offer that in Rhode Island?” And they do. The Community College of Rhode Island runs classes in all of the state prisons in RI, and offers associate’s degrees. Every year they have a graduation and a handful of students get their degree.

I was on sabbatical two years ago, and at first I thought maybe I shouldn’t start teaching in prisons now since I’m pre-tenure and doing a prison thing wouldn’t protect my position enough. At the end of the summer, I had gone to bed one night, I was lying there, I had this very clear sensation that I was at a crossroads in my life, I could either follow the prison thing or not. So I got up, sent an email to this guy at like midnight or something, saying I’m at Brown and I wonder if there’s a way to get involved with teaching. He emailed back immediately saying, “I need you to start teaching now.” I said, “Wait, wait, I was just looking to explore” and he told me to send him a CV. It turns out that he had a math teacher that had just backed out. She backed out, and I sent the email the same day. You could call it a coincidence, but I really think that God had a hand in that.

I got tossed in teaching business math at the men’s maximum security. I’ve been teaching there two or three years now. We’ve gotten other Brown faculty, Janet Blume, and some grad students involved. I envision Brown growing some sort of program.

Because of that moment and that coincidence, I feel like I was called into this. I’ve always understood the prison work as a religious calling. You would think I would have a lot of things to say about prison, but really I just go in and teach math. In the beginning I struggled with whether it was okay to care for someone who had done something wrong. I decided yes, which from a Christian perspective, makes sense. You always think about other people who might be more deserving; but I came to terms with it, and that was the essay I wrote.

EJ: You came to terms with it because of your faith?

MH: Being a Christian and having that worldview, that’s gonna be how I come to terms with a lot of things. Those emotions I had, connected to learning about what this person had done…my faith resolved that for me. It definitely wasn’t the Christian perspective that caused me to question whether I should be there—I tend to be on the love and compassion side of Christianity rather than the fire and brimstone. I think it was just a visceral reaction to have to work with somebody who’s done something terrible and to care about them and care about if they’ve done well in math, it was that weird contrast in my mind. My faith was helpful in resolving that. It wasn’t paradoxical.

EJ: So how do we show grace and mercy to others?

MH: I have led a sheltered life; I haven’t felt really wronged by people. So this was the first time that I really—not that I needed to forgive anyone personally, but I could imagine myself somewhat in the shoes of the victims. Someone said (I can’t remember who) that there’s a distinction between justice and compassion. Helping people who really need it, someone who is impoverished, whom life has given lots of problems to, and needs a job? That’s almost more justice. Whereas compassion is more like helping people who don’t deserve it; you could argue that it’s somehow more just to not have that. I remember that it sort of resonated with me in the prison context that Christ calls us to be compassionate in that sense. He died for sinners who were not worthy. We are called to the same thing: to help not only people who deserve it, but also those who don’t. So I think it’s generally what it means to be a Christian. This is the first opportunity I’ve been in a situation where I could do something like that.

EJ: There’s a misconception that if you’re an academic or an intellectual you don’t have a strong (Christian) faith. Have you found any struggles with that?

MH: I’m aware of that perception and I’ve had it myself—until maybe later in grad school when I was on faculty—that there are a few people of strong faith backgrounds. I think there are some disciplines where that stereotype is true. What I’ve been told is that in math and engineering and the sciences, I’ve heard that the numbers are quite similar to the general population. Of course there’s plenty of people that think religion is the root of many problems, and they’re probably right, so I’ve definitely encountered disparaging comments about religion, but it’s because I’m around faculty and it’s not anything special about being faculty. I have never especially felt that I’ve been discriminated against or looked down upon. So I’ve been fortunate in that regard. I’m certainly not the type of person to go around and evangelize to people, but I don’t hide it. I don’t know what fraction of faculty in my department know that I’m Christian, or even care. But there’s quite a few Christian faculty at Brown and a lot of us know each other.

EJ: Is there a reason why you’ve been drawn to math?

MH: I think I’m good at it, and it’s fun to do something you’re good at. And after you do it for a long time, you begin to appreciate it and see the beauty in it. It’s not like I started math when I was five and had this dream of being a professor. I’ve always kind of done what’s been interesting to me and it’s worked out. I think it helps out that I’m interested in something where there’s a market for that, so it’s made it easier to land in this position without enormous amounts of planning and strategy.

EJ: Do you think your study of math has changed your view on the world?

MH: I think that one thing that math really forces you to do is to think clearly about things, to think clearly about your assumptions. I value that training in that way of thinking, and so that, of course, influences my worldview. I think the other thing about being a mathematician is that mathematics is one of the few places where you can prove something with a very high degree of certainty, and basically in many cases the only uncertainty you have left is the collective logic of you and your peers. You’ve written down this proof and you and your peers have been through it a thousand times and there’s a tiny chance you’ve all been misled about some step. But pretty much it’s true and you see it borne out of many different areas. That level of knowledge is not really available in any other place that I’ve encountered.

You recognize that in life, you can hold beliefs with varying degrees of certainty, and it doesn’t have to be so black or white or set in stone, and so I think that’s helpful in matters of faith because at least for me, I’m never gonna have the mathematical certainty about theological sayings or statements of faith that I can have about something that I’m proving, and immediately as a mathematician you recognize that and you deal with that and never worry about that. Whereas a lot of people worry about that, and they see people that feel like they know something about Christianity with incredible certainty and feel that they don’t have that degree of certainty and think, “Is my faith lacking?” or maybe, “I need to get that degree of certainty before I can get somewhere,” and that can be a big hindrance.

I was raised a Christian and always went to church, but it wasn’t a huge part of who I was until later in grad school. At least not a huge part of where I spent my time. I think I was waiting for faith. I would see people who had great faith and would be compelled to act in certain ways and I was waiting to feel it with that degree of certainty.

And I realized two things: that that degree of certainty is never going to occur for me and that our brains are plastic and you’re not completely in control of who you are. But you’re in a little bit of control, so you have some influence in the way you view things and the things you read or care about, and I decided that if I wanted Christianity to be an important part of my life, I had to make that happen—I couldn’t wait for it. It’s one of those things where you have to leap and a net will appear. And I found that to be true, I found that even though there’s a lot of philosophy and theology in Christianity, at the end of the day it’s all about relationships. Relationships between you and God and between you and other people. Those relationships are things you experience rather than things you reason about, so as I’ve decided to make Christianity a part of my life, I began to interpret things in light of that. I really can see God at work and I can interpret the weird coincidences in life. You know me sending the email right on that day, sure, it could’ve been a crazy coincidence, but I want to interpret it as a calling, and then that interpretation becomes something really important to me. It means that working in a prison is something I’m gonna do even though it might not seem like a good use for my career or my time or things like that.

EJ: What do you think about the intersection of faith and science?

MH: For me, questions about the existence of God were not scientific questions. Science is about the regularities of the world, and God is a personality and by definition is not repeatable. Or maybe science is studying the parts of God that are repeatable. The laws of physics repeat everyday. But the parts that aren’t repeatable are the personality parts of God, you can’t really study that. If some miracle happened over and over again, and it was reliable and you could repeat it, it would be incorporated in science and you know, it would just be something completely different. There’s a lot of tension, particularly in the U.S., about science and religion, but I’ve never felt any of that.

Matthew Harrison is an assistant professor in the Division of Applied Mathematics.

Elizabeth Jean-Marie is a senior concentrating in immunobiology.



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