The Human Form of Mathematics

Bonolo Mohale explores the presence of mathematics in our daily lives and emphasizes the need for a more compassionate approach to teaching and learning mathematics. This work adds to the existing body of knowledge, exemplified by the article titled “Bonolo Mohale Reveals the Human Value of Mathematics.”

Illustration by LNino Mekanarishvili

Mathematics can be defined as the study of abstract or applied science to name a variety of concepts: numbers, shapes, logic, quantity, and space. We are surrounded by mathematics in our everyday lives from the moment we are born (the process of a mother giving birth is guarded by crucial milliseconds), to the concept of having a birthdate (the number of trips one has taken around the sun), to the day you die -and in unfortunate cases even how you died will be investigated using mathematical concepts. It is even found in nature (the golden ratio). In fact, one could argue that our world, what it is and what it is becoming, is shaped and carved by the key concepts found under the umbrella of mathematics.

While it is found in our academic and everyday lives, only a small percentage of people understand what mathematics truly is beyond the classroom. Some people, and at one point I included myself in this group, despised Mathematics. For a long time I too didn’t understand it beyond solving an equation and copying and pasting proofs. This is due to the intensity and level of difficulty that is part of this study of work.

Beyond the x and y variable, beyond the exam room and most particularly beyond the A+ we must ask ourselves: exactly what is Mathematics?  Not answering this question well results in the fear that most have about it. Why may you ask? Because Mathematics relies on a lot of brain power. It is founded on theory and it is usually developed by application over many years. Mathematics helps to regulate and stimulate critical thinking. It is well-known that Mathematics helps to build mirror tools or similar skills that can be transferred in any workspace or any aspect of one’s life. Reflecting on my personal journey with Mathematics will help me argue for the case of a more human form of Mathematics.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

While authoring this and reflecting on my journey with Mathematics a stranger asked me what my degree in BCom Economic Sciences means to me. I was shocked at the question and at how relevant it was to the writing of this article. On reflection, I realised that Mathematics had daunted me for many years; I had been afraid of Mathematics. I would avoid it and put it last on my priority list because of how it made me feel: powerless and like a less than worthy opponent. I personified Mathematics and gave it power over me. I gave it the ability to make or break  my confidence. It revealed to me the amount of work I needed to put into it by working on my self-image. I weighed my worth and value against my ability to solve a sum. But, Mathematics was not the problem; how I perceived Mathematics was the problem. Furthermore, the unconscious toxic culture created in academic environments such as school (amongst friends and how the study of work is presented to students by teachers) and possibly even at home (the existential pressure of having to produce outstanding results for parents and guardians) forcing many of us to weigh our value against Mathematics.

I realised that when removing the fears and pressures we face when engaging with Mathematics, it’s not the value of x or y that’s important, it’s the process of how you got to the value that’s more important and overlooked. Mathematics is a beautiful study that requires a lot of nurturing and care but it tests your patience, discipline, and mental strength. In the end, I am grateful that Mathematics was able to reveal such important information about how I see myself.        

Bonolo Mohale

BCom Economic Sciences Student, Stellenbosch University

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