Today, doing away with math. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Mathematics is at the forefront of the debate on education these days. It’s vital for work in science, engineering, and technology. And it’s generally agreed that if the U.S. is to remain competitive, we need to improve our students’ math skills. But that wasn’t always the sentiment. In fact, at one time leading educators actually sought to discourage the teaching of mathematics.

Helping lead the anti-math movement of the early twentieth century was William Heard Kilpatrick of the prestigious Columbia Teachers College. Kilpatrick regarded mathematics as “harmful rather than helpful to the kind of thinking necessary for ordinary living.” “In the past,” he said, “we have taught algebra and geometry to too many, not too few.”

Kilpatrick expressed a view held by many in the early progressive education movement. The movement sought to replace rote learning with doing. The teacher’s role wasn’t to lecture, it was to facilitate: to get students involved in activities where they’d discover things on their own. “We teach children, not subject matter” became a war cry of progressive educators. Much of the math being taught just didn’t fit the mold.

But there was another reason math took a drubbing. To progressive educators, math classes not only failed to promote discovery, they didn’t even teach useful skills. As one of Kilpatrick’s colleagues put it, “Algebra … is a nonfunctional and nearly valueless subject for over ninety percent of all boys and ninety-nine percent of all girls…”

As the progressive education movement grew, its impacts were starkly felt. In 1910, almost sixty percent of high school students took algebra. Half a century later, the number hovered below twenty-five percent. The situation was worse for geometry, dropping from thirty percent to just above ten. Mathematics was in freefall.

Then, in 1957, something happened that changed the course of American mathematics education: the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik. Within a year, Congress had passed the National Defense Education Act, which appropriated money for math and science education at all levels.