The New Math: A Political History
Christopher J. Phillips
University of Chicago Press
If you’re an American between the ages of 45 and 70, your teachers likely subjected you to the “new math,” a classroom fad that de-emphasized memorization and calculation (e.g., times tables) in favor of abstract logic (number systems, proving theorems). Phillips’ history traces the new math craze from its roots as a post-Sputnik push to shore up American kids’ science and math skills—and, by training them to reason “rigorously,” to inoculate them against Communism. But by the early 1970s, mathematical revanchists (perhaps baffled by their own kids’ homework) campaigned for the new math to be scrapped, under the belief that it would fill undisciplined young brains with abstract nonsense and leave them unable to multiply and divide. Phillips’ book argues that children’s math education will continue to be the fulcrum of great political shifts. These debates will of course be exploited energetically by parents and politicians—who in most cases have forgotten whatever math they once knew. —Aubrey Clayton
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