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.