Efrem Negash, Mathematician
If you are open to it, there is no limit to the fascinating people that you can meet in the city of St. Louis, and Efrem Negash, a mathematician and math instructor at Central Visual Performing Art High School and St. Louis Community College at Forest Park, is no less one of them.
Mr. Negash is a heartfelt man with a profound understanding of the underlying truths. I think that this is true for most individuals who are preoccupied by numbers, that they strive to understand how things come together, food, cultures, societies, etc. I have had the opportunity to speak with Efrem on a portion of these things, and his perceptions are always keen.
It may seem like somewhat of a stretch to feature an individual whose background is mathematics on a site that is devoted primarily to interviewing creatives, but I think that the connection will become apparent by the time you finish reading Efrem’s interview. After all, who better to illustrate the similarities between seemingly disparate subjects than a person whose mind approaches the world as if expressing unifying formulas?
After all, “To learn mathematics is to do mathematics.”
HOI- Eritrea, as I have come to learn, is a very interesting country in Africa with a history stretching back to some of mankind’s earliest civilizations. However, over the last few decades, it has experienced myriad changes, from a revolution for political independence to constructing an emerging industrialized economy. What was life like for you growing up, and what brought you to the United States?
EN- I can say, for the most part, life was fairly fun growing up among brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, friends and relatives, albeit there were some economic and other life challenges at times. Yes, as you have come to know, we [Eritreans] have an interesting, attractive and long history, but unfortunately, like many African countries, there have been countless obstacles in the economic and social development. Consequently, many Eritrean youngsters are leaving the country in search of an economic or political liberty, and mine is not different.
HOI- Do you see St. Louis as a cross-cultural city? How does the city foster cultural exchange, and how can that be better achieved?
EN- I would say St. Louis is a relatively cross-cultural city; for instance, when I see the classes I teach, often times we have students from different economic, social, cultural, etc. background. But I also believe, as there is always a room for a change, [that] more can be attained through [programs like, foreign] exchange of students, incorporating more foreign languages at schools, and organizing multi-cultural clubs, to mention a few.
HOI- Do you see many opportunities for involving or incorporating aspects of your heritage into your daily life, here in the States?
EN- So far, I don’t have anything that I [can] say I am deprived of by coming to the United States. It seems though that we are more family-oriented in back home than here. I guess it could be the competition, [but] life seems a little hectic and we as people tend to be more self-centered often times.
HOI- When did you decide that mathematics was something that you wished to pursue?
EN- Honestly speaking, I [have] loved math since I was a kid, however, I didn’t even have a dream to pursue in math. This seems funny or unbelievable, but we have only one university in the whole country. On top of the high competition to join a certain major (department), some of the departments got cancelled because of a shortage in staff (instructors). So, in my case, my first choice was Statistics, and I think Math was my third choice, but Statistics was cancelled for that year (and the following three-four years). I love it though!
HOI- Did you have an exceptional teacher that motivated this conclusion for you? If so, how?
EN- Luckily, I had really great and very inspiring instructors, both in high school and in university. One of my instructors used to say, “To learn mathematics is to do mathematics.” This is a true saying and has been as my motto every time I teach math.
HOI- As an artist, and having associated with many other artists, I know that there is a reserved fear for mathematics shared by many creatives. Why do you think that this is, and what parallels, if any, do you see existing between art and math?
EN- Math is everywhere, [and] all the more in art. I do not know why modern artists have a fear towards math, whereas history tells us that math and art are almost two sides of the same coin. I feel and believe that math and art are inseparable. Imagine of the ancient Greeks or Egyptians, who designed and built some of the great wonders of the world like the pyramids and the Parthenon. The famous Pythagorean Theorem was first proposed and demonstrated, not using algebra (a,b,c), [but] by using visual measurements, which pretty much involves a great knowledge of art. I think the phobia towards math comes mainly because people see only the x-y-z or a-b-c variable, or the abstract side of it, but Math is an applied science which should be appreciated.
HOI- How do you calm your students’ apprehensions about math in the classroom?
EN- This is the biggest challenge that faces me as an instructor both in college or [on the] high school level. A lot of students have math phobia. Some students have [had] a bad experience, not only with the subject matter, but also with their prior instructors, and to alleviate that, and [their] apprehension towards math, [you must] give students an opportunity to try and even learn [from] their mistakes. Learning is about making an effort, making mistakes, and learning from them. I also ask my students, “Why do you come to class?” The answer is obviously, “To learn.” But, you [can only] learn something that you don’t [already] know. If one knows everything (which is not possible), [then] he/she does not need to go to class. Therefore, I always tell them, “You come here to learn what you don’t know.” Making mistakes is thus inevitable, but learning from the mistakes is the learning that I promote. The phobia is exhibited by test anxiety, and [so] I give students a chance to re-take tests if they choose to do so. A teacher’s approach and rapport towards learners is thus a key!
HOI- Personally, I have always revered naturally mathematic minds. Less because of the logical/analytical aspects than for the conceptual; I see math as being a sort of proxy for the complications inherit in the natural world, and it is particularly exciting for me to observe someone draw conclusions about this. How do you perceive the function of numbers in the wider scope of human understanding?
EN- This sounds to me like a philosophical question, if I understood you clearly. As I mentioned earlier, math we use; math, and of course, numbers, [are] everywhere.
HOI- Are there answers in math for how humans across social divides (political, religious, cultural) can interact with better cohesion to common goals?
EN- Like other sectors, globalization is widely affecting the mathematics education. Therefore, even though I cannot say that there are exclusive and optimal answers for everything, I believe if people would try in one accord, for the betterment of society and common goals, there are myriad solutions for a bunch of [the] traumatic problems inundating our generation. No wonder that numbers have played an enormous role in the technologically surging world of ours, which has on one, made life fascinating and pleasurable, yet on the other hand, it has made living more intricate and exasperating. But the beauty of math is that it goes beyond language differences, political, religious, cultural, and economical divides.
Bottom-line though, I believe the answer for all is not from math or other applied sciences, but from the Almighty God, who is the creator and sustainer of all creation!
All photographs are by Jason Gray