Kind of like the controversial Common Core Curriculum Standards for Mathematics today, “New Math” was the raspberry seed in many people’s dentures back in the ’60s and ’70s.
This was a time of sweeping cultural change in the U.S. The post WWII years saw the rise of the counterculture movement – beatniks and hippies, the birth of feminism, the civil rights movement and an era marked by an acute distrust of government. In the middle of this ferment, “New Math” was introduced into schools in the late 1950s and 1960s – a curricular answer to Cold War fears of American intellectual inadequacy. In the age of Sputnik and increasingly sophisticated technological systems and machines, math class came to be viewed as a crucial component of the education of intelligent, virtuous citizens who would be able to compete on a global scale.
In this program I interview, Christopher J. Phillips, author of The New Math: A Political History, which examines the rise and fall of this new way of teaching mathematics. Neither the new math curriculum designers nor its diverse legions of supporters concentrated on whether the new math would improve students’ calculation ability. Rather, they felt the new math would train children to think in the right way, instilling in students a set of mental habits that might better prepare them to be citizens of modern society—a world of complex challenges, rapid technological change, and unforeseeable futures. While Phillips grounds his argument in shifting perceptions of intellectual discipline and the underlying nature of mathematical knowledge, he also touches on long-standing debates over the place and relevance of mathematics in liberal education. And in so doing, he explores the essence of what it means to be an intelligent American—by the numbers.