Progressive education was anti-algebra

For some reason, I missed this episode in the history of progressive education. (I need to finally read Left Back.)

William Heard Kilpatrick, one of the most influential pedagogical figures of the early twentieth century, would have felt right at home in today’s educational culture wars. Back then, as now, the traditionalist defense of math education came from the idea that the subject created order and discipline in the minds of young students. The child who could solve a geometric proof, for example, would carry that logic and work ethic into his professional life, even if it did not entail any numbers at all. Kilpatrick, a popular reformer who was known as the “million-dollar professor,” not for his salary but for the huge tuition-paying crowds his lectures drew, dismissed that idea. Algebra and geometry, he believed, should not be widely taught in high schools because they were an “intellectual luxury,” and “harmful rather than helpful to the kind of thinking necessary for ordinary living.” Not everyone was going to need or even have the intelligence to complete an algebra course, Kilpatrick reasoned. Why bother teaching it to them?


Kilpatrick’s ideas were taken up by the progressivist movement in education, a powerful force in the early twentieth century inspired by the work of the philosopher John Dewey and guided by a set of principles that included “freedom for children to develop naturally,” “interest as the motive of all work,” and “teacher as guide, not taskmaster.” These ideas had their roots in the University of Chicago but ultimately went mainstream when they were championed by professors at the Columbia University Teachers College, where Kilpatrick and Dewey taught. The coalition of anti-math parents and academics had a steady influence on education policy for decades. From the start of the twentieth century to after the Second World War, the percentage of high-school students enrolled in algebra fell. In 1909, roughly fifty-seven per cent of high-school students were enrolled in algebra. By 1955, that number had been cut by more than half to about twenty-five per cent.

How Math Became an Object of the Culture Wars by Jay Caspian King, The New Yorker, 15 Nov. 2022.

One thought on “Progressive education was anti-algebra

  1. The author seems to think that the “math wars” are just more of the same rhetoric.

    “The draft framework was criticized by the usual suspects (math professors, and parents who worry that their kids will go to U.C. Santa Cruz instead of Stanford) but also many equity-focussed educators who worry that the program may be seen as a slackening of expectations for minority and low-income students.”

    Excuse me? The “usual suspects”? Math professors don’t have standing in this? And the only worry that parents have is their kids getting into the right elite school? Really? And CMF isn’t just about the “equity” and “woke” arguments but the implicit push for more of the “problem solving” approaches that have proved ineffective for many decades. Jo Boaler has pushed for PBL and “rich tasks” which are implied by the usual “dog whistles” of reform. The author seems oblivious to all this and just sees it as the never-ending story, ho hum, where have we heard this before?

    “Real world” problems seems reasonable to this guy, but has he seen some of the examples of these real world problems–the ones that aren’t social-justice oriented, which he thinks is the main thing to tackle here? Does he examine that kids really don’t care if a problem is relevant to their lives or not if they are given proper instruction on how to solve problems and they are successful at it?

    And in the next column he will write he promises to focus on “a new billion-dollar push to improve curriculum and classroom materials—one that hopes to disentangle itself from the politics of the math wars.” That would be Bill Gates’ next philanthropic contribution to education. And those of us who have seen this before can pretty much guess where this will end up. More reform math, backed up by Gates’ billions with the recipients saying “Yes, this approach is exactly what you want, Bill” just like what most bureaucracies do–i.e., they continue the same old practices and call it by a new name.

    As a friend pointed out about the article: “He needs to consider that there is a lot of bad research in the ed space that was driven with a “political goal first” perspective.” We’ll see if he gets around to that, or if he continues dismissing parents, the “usual suspects” and view the “math wars” as a boring old argument despite evidence that the “new approaches” that have come about because of NCTM and the reform movement have not exactly resulted in improvements.

    Liked by 1 person

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