New Math

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But in the new approach, as you know, the important thing is to understand what you're doing, rather than to get the right answer.
Tom Lehrer

"New Math" or reform mathematics was a series of modified mathematics curricula introduced into American schools from the 1960s onward. The first round of modifications was made for political purposes, as the U.S. government, having witnessed the launch of Sputnik in 1957, was trying desperately to farm more mathematicians for the purpose of one-upping the Soviets in space technology. Another round, still ongoing, came in the 1990s after the publication of Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, which expresses the same ideological motives, though shorn of the "one-upping the Reds" veneer. At least one cycle of textbooksWikipedia's W.svg has been made as a specific repudiation of it.

Starting point[edit]

New Math is based on the premise that "all children can learn mathematics."[1] On this unquestionable understanding, it being observed that there are people who cannot put two and two together without making less than six thousand, one of two courses of action must be taken in order to make the premise jive with reality: one must either (1) raise the intelligence and/or innate mathematical ability of a considerable number of students, or (2) evacuate the definition of "mathematics" so that even the chumps can be hot-shots at it. We will let the reader decide which of these courses of action New Math takes.


As the name suggests, the New Math curricula are quite different from the traditional sort, primarily in that they put a greater emphasis on grasping abstract mathematical concepts than on solving problems in math.

  • The nursery-school pupil, instead of being taught such archaic nonsense as how to wipe his nose and say the ABCs, will learn how to "represent and analyze mathematical situations and structures using algebraic symbols." He will be taught the commutative law,[2] geometric transformations, and analytic geometry.[3]
  • The elementary-school pupil, instead of working through big complicated computations that are best left to calculators[4], such as dividing 36 by 6, will play with exciting toys such as SnapTM cubes and power polygons, which unlike most toys will be paid for by the State, to the tune of over $1,000.[5]
  • The middle-school pupil, instead of having to trudge through endless columns of fractions (boring!), will be introduced to such stimulating mathematical conundrums as the social role of zoos and how pollution threatens the planet.[6]
  • The high-school pupil will get to think just like mathematicians and scientists, who (contrary to the popular myth that they are engaged in high-level thinking for which the prerequisite is 20 years of education) actually sit around all day yanking conjectures from where the sun don't shine.[7]


So which book requires students to think? It is not the American one.[8]
—Richard Askey

As might be expected of politically motivated meddling with school curricula, New Math has had a rather different result from what was expected. By the time the first generation of children educated on New Math were reaching adulthood, instead of a new wave of mathematicians racing to solve complex engineering problems and shoot colonists off to Mars one step ahead of the communists, the U.S. had a moribund space program and mathematics departments that were beginning to fill with immigrants from certain communist countries, who (unlike their American counterparts) actually knew how to count to ten.