What was US math like in the 50's?

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In summary, the 50s saw a shift in how math was taught in the US from a purely rote system to one that relied more on understanding concepts. This change was spurred by the Cold War and the need to beat the Russians.f
  • #1
Hey all,

I've read a few threads on how US mathematics education 40+ years ago was very different compared to what it is today (both in high school and college). I was wondering if people could describe the specific differences. Furthermore, do you guys remember what books were used back then? I read a book "Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman" where he talked about how he learned a calculus trick by reading "Advanced Calculus" by Woods, and I was wondering if there were other old gems which people might now know as well today.

  • #2
In the 50's math was taught by rote, at least in my school district. It was not a good time. Faced with Cold War realities, the US tried to modernize their methods, but some of those experiments didn't turn out all that well, IMO. In our school, all the teachers were women, and all of them were middle-aged or older, and were pretty set in their ways. Back then, if you had graduated from a "teaching college" you could be hired as a teacher, regardless of your knowledge regarding sciences, mathematics, etc. As a teacher, you were expected to teach grammar, penmanship, geography, etc. If you managed to get a teacher who knew anything about sciences or math, you'd be very lucky.
  • #3
I've read a few threads on how US mathematics education 40+ years ago was very different compared to what it is today (both in high school and college).
The title of the thread is "What was math like in the 50's?" So which is it, the 1950s or 1970s (40 years ago)?

Do the math. How many members do you think we have at this site who can answer questions about college math in the 1950s? Those people are now 70 to 80 years old, or older.
  • #4
Do the math. How many members do you think we have at this site who can answer questions about college math in the 1950s? Those people are now 70 to 80 years old, or older.

Finally! A question that I'm qualified to answer!

I'm 75 and had algebra but no calculus in high school, had calculus and diff equations in college on my way to a BSME. None of my engineering courses involved calculus, just algebra. Which was probably lucky for me, I struggled with calculus and was thus inspired to switch from physics to mechanical engineering to avoid more math, among other reasons. Also luckily, I never had to use calculus during my entire career. I've retained some interest in math and physics, however, which I suppose explains why I'm here...
  • #5
The reason I asked about 40 years ago (1971) versus the title of the thread (1950s) is that education in math and the sciences in the US underwent a marked transition starting in the early '60s. We had to beat the Russians, but they were beating us. The missile gap (fictitious), Cuban Missile Crisis (real), Sputnik (real), and Yuri Gagarin (real) were all signs that something drastic needed to be done. And it was.

Education underwent huge changes. While some of them were incredibly stupid (google "Go you chicken fat, go!"), but many were very effective. Some kids were singled out for special treatment in government-funded summer programs. I studied non-Eulclidean geometry between my freshman and sophomore years of high school, freshwater limnology the next summer, and digital electronics & nuclear physics the next. The final one crammed calculus down our throats in two brutal weeks, one each for differential and integral calculus. The next six weeks were digital electronics in the morning, nuclear physics in the afternoon.

Somewhere along the line (multiple somewheres/sometimes IIRC), we were informed that we were not geniuses. They went to extra-special programs.
  • #6
I was in high school in tennessee in the late 1950's. In my opinion, high school math education was much better in those days than it is today say in Georgia, where I live now.

Although I did not learn calculus, I learned algebra and geometry well, as well as logic and set theory. Thus I had an excellent precalculus background to base my college study of calculus upon at Harvard.

Today, many high schools in Georgia do a poor job of teaching algebra and geometry, and although they present calculus to many students, those students do not seem to understand anything about any of these subjects when they reach college at UGA. Of course there is the danger that I am comparing my own preparation, as a merit scholar who went to Harvard, with that of an average student of today who goes to a state school. It is possible the average student in 1956 at my school was as weak as todays students are.

But my impression is that the quality of precalculus instruction in high school has declined in order to make time for a poor quality high school calculus course. Thus our students are even harder to teach in college than students were in the 1950's, because they must be taught things high school students used to know, before they can be retaught calculus properly.

College instruction has changed negatively as well, since it must be more remedial to make up for the decline in quality of high school education. Thus from my perspective as a teacher in a public state university, and a recent parent of high school students, math education appears now more sophisticated, but that is all flash and no substance, and the real education is worse than before.

At the end of the 1960's the SMSG program from NSF began an ambitious program of introducing better more substantial more modern materials into high school education, but this movement foundered totally because of poor or no training for teachers, and imitation "new math" textbooks that had no significant content. The actual SMSG texts from Yale were much better than the books then in use and many now in use but were not widely adopted.

The demise of teaching geometry from the original Euclid, which occurred in about 1910, is one of the most harmful events in US mathematical education. At least there were some similar books available in the 1950's. Currently, the geometry book of Harold Jacobs, which is good but not as good as Euclid, is as good as it gets in terms of high school books, and it is considered too hard to use by many systems.
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