The New Math
A Political History
224 pages

2 halftones, 6 line drawings

6 x 9

© 2014
An era of sweeping cultural change in America, the postwar years saw the rise of beatniks and hippies, the birth of feminism, and the release of the first video game. It was also the era of new math. Introduced to US schools in the late 1950s and 1960s, the new math was 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 history, Christopher J. Phillips examines the rise and fall of the new math as a marker of the period’s political and social ferment. 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 longstanding 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.
In this history, Christopher J. Phillips examines the rise and fall of the new math as a marker of the period’s political and social ferment. 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 longstanding 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.
Alex Bellos  Nature
“Phillips reminds us in his fascinating book that even though mathematics is supposed to be apolitical, the teaching of it is anything but.”
Jeremy Kilpatick, University of Georgia  Science
“The New Math sheds light on a time when changing political commitments were affecting what it meant to be prepared—mathematically—for citizenship in a modern, technologyladen society. . . . The book is based on extensive research and is incredibly well documented. . . . Likely to stand for a long time as the most thorough, authoritative account of this midtwentiethcentury phenomenon.”
Aubrey Clayton  Pacific Standard
“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 deemphasized memorization and calculation (e.g., times tables) in favor of abstract logic (number systems, proving theorems). Phillips’s history traces the new math craze from its roots as a postSputnik push to shore up American kids’ science and math skills—and, by training them to reason ‘rigorously,’ to inoculate them against Communism. . . . Phillips’s 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.”
Jeremy Mikula  Chicago Tribune, Printers Row
“Noted. . . . Phillips examines how new forms of teaching and mathematics in the 1950s and ’60s [were] a reaction to Cold War tensions.”
Theodore M. Porter, University of California, Los Angeles  author of "Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age"
“Phillips’s exposition of what the new math meant and how, in practice, it was taught are definite strengths of his book. He reveals unexpected dimensions of the controversy it generated. Its champions in the classroom put more stress on forming free, rational citizens than on raising the level of technical competence in America, while the opposition came not only from defenders of rote learning, but equally from mathematicians who focused on the instrumental value of mathematics for science and technology.”
John L. Rudolph, University of WisconsinMadison  author of "Scientists in the Classroom: The Cold War Reconstruction of American Science Education"
“At the intersection of the history of science and history of education, The New Math offers a compelling argument for understanding curriculum reform efforts in mathematics within the context of postwar/Cold War America. Making sense of these reform efforts as a response to the American experience after the war—including the efforts to return to normalcy, the rise of mass/consumer culture, the explosion of an unsettling (for adults) new youth culture, the expansion of secondary education, and the ascendancy of academic (particularly scientific and technical) expertise—enables the story of the new math reforms to shed a broader light on the political and cultural changes taking place during this period. This story provides insights into public perceptions of expertise and the perceived role of the academic (or any kind of) expert in American culture. A quality piece of scholarship.”
Peter Galison, Harvard University  coauthor of "Objectivity"
“‘New Math’ would make a new kind of free American citizen, would put calculation on a firm basis, would restore mathematics to its rightful (high) perch in the intellectual world; it would destroy education, it would make American education into a laughingstock. Full of hope and hyperbole, claims for the new Cold War textbooks could not have been more extreme. In this remarkable book, Phillips tracks this attempt at a national—even international—reform in how schoolchildren would learn math and so come to reason more generally. Rich in sources, precise in history, and ambitious in contextualizing the new math, this book adds powerfully to our understanding of twentiethcentury science education, and to debates as to what it means to understand mathematics.”
David Kaiser, MIT  author of "How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival"
“The New Math is ambitious, rich, and remarkably wellwritten. During the middle decades of the twentieth century, many groups struggled to articulate what ‘mathematics’ is, what ‘mathematicians’ actually do, and how a new approach to mathematics instruction could craft ideal citizens in America’s schools. Mathematics teaching became a symbolic arena to sort out competing notions of proper thinking in the nuclear age. Drawing upon an impressive range of sources, Phillips vividly charts the surprising plasticity of ‘mathematics’ among professional scholars and the voting public in Cold War America.”
Jamie CohenCole, George Washington University  author of "The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature"
“In this history of the new math, Phillips reconstructs how techniques for teaching arithmetic, geometry, and algebra embedded at once professional views of the constitution of modern mathematics and social and political concerns of the Cold War era. Recovering debates that ranged from the grassroots to professional mathematicians and the National Science Foundation, this fascinating book demonstrates how both supporters and opponents of the new math believed that citizenship, democracy, and the social order depended not only on children learning mathematics, but how they learned it and how they thought about it.”
Contents
Chapter 1. Introduction: The American Subject
Chapter 2. The Subject and the State: The Origins of the New Math
Chapter 3. The Textbook Subject: Mathematicians and the New Math
Chapter 4. The Subject in Itself: Arithmetic as Knowledge
Chapter 5. The Subject in the Classroom: The Selling of the New Math
Chapter 6. The Basic Subject: New Math and Its Discontents
Chapter 2. The Subject and the State: The Origins of the New Math
Chapter 3. The Textbook Subject: Mathematicians and the New Math
Chapter 4. The Subject in Itself: Arithmetic as Knowledge
Chapter 5. The Subject in the Classroom: The Selling of the New Math
Chapter 6. The Basic Subject: New Math and Its Discontents
Epilogue
Acknowledgments
Notes
Bibliography
Index
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