A Modern Mathematician with a Classical Education: Interview with Dr. Jonathan Kenigson
by William C. Michael
This past year, I have been blessed to make the acquaintance of Dr. Jonathan Kenigson. Dr. Kenigson contacted me after discovering the Classical Liberal Arts Academy website, and we’ve corresponded a bit about the study of mathematics and classical education in general. He wrote at the time: “I am quite convinced that what you have assembled rivals (or in fact exceeds) the standards of the finest universities of modern Europe.” — which I took as a great compliment, since he was one to know.What intrigued me more than Dr. Kenigson’s mathematical interests and expertise, was bits and pieces I gathered concerning his spiritual life. Dr. Kenigson was a Catholic man, living a life of voluntary poverty, chastity and obedience through a group called the Order of Franciscan Hermits. Learning this, I knew that he and I were going to get along just fine — and the more I learn of him, the more interesting this connection becomes, as I note below.Unfortunately, I was in the midst of the sale of our farm properties and failed to keep in touch with Dr. Kenigson. Fortunately, he contacted me recently to discuss a possible collaboration and I’ve kept in touch. Wanting to learn more about Dr. Kenigson, and trusting that this knowledge and experience would be of interest to CLAA parents and students, I sent him a list of questions to serve as an informal interview. He has graciously responded, and I’m happy to share the details in this post.Please note that all of my comments on this post will be set in grey boxes to avoid any confusion.
Questions- 1. Who are you? Provide a brief personal introduction.
- 2. When/where were you born?
- 3. How did you become a Catholic?
- 4. How were you educated as a child?
- 5. What led to your interest in mathematics?
- 6. What led to your interest in studying overseas?
- 7. What would you change (if anything) about your own education?
- 8. What are you working on? Describe your current activity at Oxford/Cambridge.
- 9. What do you hope to accomplish in your life’s work as a Catholic mathematician?
- 10. What advice would you give to a Catholic student who is interested in mathematical studies?
Dr. Jonathan Kenigson
1. Who are you? Provide a brief personal introduction.
It is a pleasure to meet all of you. My name is Dr. Jonathan Kenigson, and I am a theoretical mathematician by training. I work in Combinatorial Physics, Modified Metric Theories of Gravity, Functional Analysis, and Logic & Philosophy of Science. I am 33 years old and a citizen of the USA, where I reside around the city of Nashville (“Music City”).
2. When/where were you born?
I grew up in rural Tennessee, around Nashville, and was classically home-schooled before attending the honors program at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, TN, USA (50km from Nashville).
3. How did you become a Catholic?
In 2005, I made very strict personal vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the Magisterium, and discerned to become a Lasallian Brother before choosing the life of a lay hermit in the Order of Franciscan Hermits. I lived a life of radical poverty around Knoxville, TN from 2007–2014, with a 1-year reclusion in 2010 to tutor students on the London School of Economics BSc in Mathematics & Economics. In 2013, I discovered Eucharistic Adoration, and made it the centre of my day. In 2015, I moved to Kansas to teach at a classical high school and a Liberal Arts college (both near Kansas City), where I redoubled my vow of poverty and mortification of the flesh in the spirit of St. Francis. I saw Christ in the widow and the orphan, and sought to pattern my life after that of St. Francis. Service in the inner city, where I confronted the poverty, suffering, and physical danger, taught me the value of the Daily Office in modulating my living and easing my anxiety. In 2016, I lived in a crude shack on the Kansas border in imitation of Br. Francis while serving at my college and dual-enrollment sites.
I had similar experiences while in college, though I was not a Catholic. I spent nights on the streets with the homeless not because I was hoping to “help them”, but because I often felt more comfortable among them than among most of my peers. I felt the stress and anxiety of young adulthood pressing upon me and found comfort in Christ’s words, “Look at the birds of the air, the neither sow nor reap, nor gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” I learned to live without anxiety, which has helped me in my pursuit of classical studies. -WCM
4. How were you educated as a child?
I received a classical education at home with advanced moderations in Mathematics, Physics, and Languages before completing my high-school education at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, TN. The professors at VSCC gave me free reign of the intellect and suggested many advanced sources to augment the classical education I had already received. As a child, I was mentored by the VSCC professors as well as my parents, who arranged advanced tuition for me at various institutes in the USA and Europe.
Note: What Dr. Kenigson describes here is very similar to the opportunity I enjoyed at Rutgers University. My professors saw that I had unique intellectual gifts, but also a zeal for study that wasn’t served by the normal curriculum. I was excused from class attendance and worked independently with the chairman of the Classics department to begin my research in the classical liberal arts. Another interesting similarity. -WCM
5. What led to your interest in mathematics?
My interest in mathematics was piqued by performing poorly in basic Algebra. Ironically, I initially despised the subject, and sought to devote myself fully to Philosophy. After taking several lectures in Pure Mathematics at VSCC, I learned of “Gamma Analysis” from a dear professor of mine, and had soon read the entire MIT and Harvard prelim syllabi in Analysis (Advanced Calculus) as a result. My parents structured my scientific education around three principles: (1). Classical Liberal Arts and Philosophy, which are indispensable to the mind and soul; (2). Advanced modules in pure mathematics and theoretical physics; (3). Applied mathematical methods in the physical and biological sciences.
Note how Jonathan’s parents worked with their son, making use of resources available to them, and thinking “outside the box”. This is the kind of parenting and homeschooling I am always discussing in my “walk talks”. Parents cannot accomplish the goals of Catholic education by lazily following the crowd. The resources are available to us, but we must make creative and diligent use of them.
6. What led to your interest in studying overseas?
While in Poverty in 2007, I discovered the work of Ikehata, Matsumura, Yordanov, and the mathematicians at the Lebedev Institute and the Steklov Institute in Russia and the Faculties of Philosophy, Mathematics, and Informatics at the University of Sofia “St. Kliment Ohridski”, Bulgaria. At the time, I was working in Wave Mechanics, in a field called Sobolev Theory. This field was pioneered in Eastern Europe, and it was natural to seek out tuition there. I took a First as Top Graduate of the University of Tennessee overall and in both Mathematics and Humanities.
Notice how Jonathan’s aptitude and interest did not lead to an “either-or” view of modern education. Rather, by demonstrating his ability to master the opportunities that were available where he was, new, previously unknown opportunities opened up for him. The spiteful approach of most homeschool parents, by which they reject modern schools and resources because they are faulty or imperfect, is not the way to handle our children’s unique gifts and interests or to accomplish extraordinary academic goals. We must first demonstrate our abilities by proving we are actually capable of exhausting the resources available to us, which will lead those who take interest in us to recommend to us new opportunities. I enjoyed the same experience in my own studies.
The Humanities Division had several world-renowned scholars of Religion and Philosophy, who were kind enough to structure my education around intensive reading-based courses and original-language documents. Additionally, several lectures in England were of particular interest to me — particularly the Mathematical Physics of J. Gajjar and the Operator Algebras of Dritschel. In 2012, I enrolled at the University of Sofia for a Research Master (MPhil), which resulted in a book (still being translated) on the nature of mathematical knowledge derived from Abstract Measure Theory — a topic central to all of modern mathematics. I stayed on for the PhD at the same institute, making several contributions to the Epistemology of Science and the Relativistic Dynamics of Black Holes. More lectures in England — particularly those in String Theory and Supersymmetric Manifold Theory at Newcastle and York, led me to complete two postdoctoral internships at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. The first was in the Dynamics of Rotating Black Holes, and the second was in the Combinatorics of Theoretical, Relativistic, and Quantum Physics.
7. What would you change (if anything) about your own education?
I would not change anything about my own education. My parents and my professors at VSCC never “pushed” me, but allowed me to freely inquire of every classical discipline and come to my own conclusions. I am profoundly in the debt of all of these good people for bothering to see me through my boyhood antics. Classical liberal arts are fundamental to the educated citizen of both the Kingdom of Man and the Kingdom of God, and have enriched my understanding of the mathematical sciences by allowing me to think abstractly about immensely complex problems and come up with multidisciplinary solutions that more specialized practitioners may miss or fail to recognize. The Humanities division at the University of Tennessee was kind enough to permit me nearly total freedom in my education and intensive mentorship in diverse fields that would not typically fit into a single major-field.
While I was not raised in a Christian family or home-schooled, I was also given freedom by my parents to pursue what interested me — and support in pursuing it. Many homeschool parents imagine that doing the opposite is necessary to cultivate virtue and vocations in their children, but it’s not so. The catechism teaches that we are not to try and force our children down any state of life or vocation, but leave that with God and the child. Many parents direct the child’s entire education under the influence of anxieties about grades, accreditation, certificates, admissions, what other families are doing, etc. It doesn’t work that way.
8. What are you working on? Describe your current activity at Oxford/Cambridge.
I have co-founded Athanasian Hall, Cambridge — an interdisciplinary research institute devoted to the study of fundamental Mathematics, Physics, and Logic from a classical perspective. My research there is devoted strictly to Combinatorial Physics, although I have opened several seminars to undergraduate students of high ability. Visiting scholars are from Oxford, Cambridge, Eastern Europe, Iran, the USA, and other parts of the UK (of course). While not formally a college of Cambridge, permanent fellows are required to apply for and attain a tenured position at a Cambridge college to retain affiliation. Fellows are expected to apply for membership at the Isaac Newton Mathematical Institute and conduct fundamental research in Mathematics, Logic, Physics, or Philosophy thereof.
I am currently at fully-funded Junior Member of Isaac Newton Mathematical Institute (University of Cambridge) and Sr. Research Scholar in Philosophy of Science, Mathematics, and Religion at IOCS, a doctoral and post-doctoral school of the Cambridge Federation. In 2020, I enrolled on lectures in Philosophy at the University of Oxford, and am currently completing two monographs based upon my coursework.
In 2021, I formed an international committee of Russian, US, UK, Ukrainian, and South American scientists to investigate the formation of the “Hospital of the Society of the Most Holy Christ, Crucified” (which I deem, in short, Christ’s Hospital) in Oxfordshire. This is not a medical hospital, but a very advanced institute of secondary education based on a classical model. Daily prayer, sustained fasting, Eucharistic Adoration, the Divine Office, and service to the poor will be integrated into the world’s most advanced curricula in various fields. There are no fees, but entrance is governed by very rigorous and need-blind exams, with every applicant in the top 1% receiving admittance despite financial status. Tutors (lecturers) will be full professors, International Mathematical Olympiad and Russian Math Olympiad Gold medalists, and scientists of distinction in Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Languages, and Medicine. A “formation track” will allow individuals to choose formation for Religious life through a Pontifical Institute of Religious Sciences, and to attend various seminars at the University of Oxford and the Harvard Extension School (HES) Mathematical Sciences Program. A full array of languages, ranging from Arabic to Latin to Russian to Chinese, will also be on offer.
This project at Christ’s Hospital has been the subject of our recent discussion and possible collaboration. I have told Dr. Kenigson that all of our resources in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy are at his disposal.
9. What do you hope to accomplish in your life’s work as a Catholic mathematician?
As a mathematician, I strive to comprehend the semiotics of the Cosmos, and to obtain facility with modern mathematical methods sufficient to model the causal history and future of the universe on a Relativistic, Quantum, and Philosophical level. Aquinas and Christ both inform me, but Christ before all. Mine is a crusade to discover all elements of Cause, and to derive the greatest pleasure in conformity with the intellection of the Divine Mind. In this sense, my sole purpose is Cruciformity. Mathematics is merely the language one employs to tame the wilderness of Canaan and find the eidetic essences informing Causes. Poetry and Philosophy may be employed to the same effect. It may be said that the mathematician, if he is sincere in his inquiry, is only a poet or philosopher if he stands to understand the aesthetics of his discovery. The Quadrivium is art, and good art — if one is to judge — is not merely adornment, but the nourishment of the Soul.
Dr. Kenigson’s words here reveal an understanding that is only possible through fervent Catholic devotion joined with diligent temporal work, sustained over time — what it means to “pray and work”. This is how one speaks of a true “vocation” — and remember that Dr. Kenigson is a member of the Catholic laity.
10. What advice would you give to a Catholic student who is interested in mathematical studies?
Do not ever think that a classical education does not prepare you for a mathematical one. Latin, Greek, Greats, Philosophy, Theology — all of these, in the form of the Trivium and Quadrivium, are preparatory for abstract thought and creativity. These qualities — and not merely the grandiloquence of the completed proof — are what make a scientist. Breadth of study is indispensable to scientific knowledge, infinitely more so than the Rhadamanthine constraints of some “mathematical” text, which purports to teach Logic but really is an inculcation of pure calculation.
Thank you, Dr. Kenigson, for taking the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully and promptly. I am sure that parents and students reading this will have many follow-up questions they’d like to ask (as I do!). I would be happy to receive any questions for Dr. Kenigson and pass them along, and to update this post as needed.May God help us to cast away all anxieties and follow the unique journeys He has prepared for us, that we may know the joy that awaits us not only at their end, but along the way.God bless your studies,William C. Michael, HeadmasterClassical Liberal Arts Academy