I frequently meet educated adults who say, “I’m just not a maths person. I can’t do maths.” I have never met an educated adult who so casually says, “I don’t know how to read.” Yet whenever I ask these “non-maths people” what mathematics actually is, they have no idea. Which is not surprising. Many maths teachers don’t even know what mathematics is.
At its core, mathematics is the study of patterns. It is the process by which we take the messy complexities of the world and simplify them until they are clean and beautiful. It is not about numbers. It is not about calculations. Any mathematician will tell you this.
Do you dislike patterns? Then surely you must also hate fashion, and art, and music, and nature, and basically everything beautiful and good in the world—because they are all made of patterns. In that case, I am very sorry.
Do you dislike mindless calculations, meaningless procedures, and manipulation of strange ancient Greek symbols? Great! Then you dislike the pale imitation of mathematics that so many students receive. As well you should! But you don’t dislike mathematics itself.
Imagine you go to a strange new country where you meet a poor, deprived child who has never seen a football before. We’ll call this strange fictional country, for lack of a better word, “America.” You show him the football, and he looks at you sideways.
“What’s that?” He asks.
“It’s a football.”
“That’s not a football. A football is brown, and made of pigskin, and it’s shaped like an oval with points, and…”
“Okay, fine. You can call this a soccer ball.”
“Okay. What do you do with it?”
“Well, you play footba—err, soccer, with it.”
“How do you do that?”
“Here, let me toss the ball to you, and you hit it back to me using your head.”
“How was that? Wasn’t that fun?”
“It wasn’t too bad.”
“Great! Now we’re going to repeat that three thousand times over the next two hours.”
“Umm…what? Okay, I guess. If you say so.”
(Two hours later) “Now! Don’t you think soccer is fun!”
“My head hurts.”
“Well, sure. That’s how you know it’s working. We’ll practice some more tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.”
“Do we have to?”
“Yes. It’s very important.”
“Do I ever get to ‘play’?”
“Play? What do you mean? I’m telling you, this is fun! And even if it’s not, it’s very important.”
“Okay. I trust you.”
(12 years later, after banging a soccer ball against the child’s head hundreds of thousands of times)
“Now, tell me, what do you think of soccer?”
“Ahh! Don’t say that word!”
“What word? Soccer?”
“Ahh! Whenever you say that word, I feel a sharp pain in my head! Stop!”
Then, due to the severe brain damage caused by all that heading practice and the PTSD caused by endless, mindless drilling, he will forever shiver whenever the word “soccer” is mentioned. This poor man will never be able to appreciate a beautifully-worked give-and-go between Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi, because as soon as he hears that there is “soccer” on TV, he will run from the room screaming.
And one day he will vote for Donald Trump.
-Jay Kloppenberg, African School for Excellence Co-Founder