Thursday, July 11, 2019

STEM, the Clarke, and a Bit of Cultural History

by Frank Boles 

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education has been a buzz phrase in education for at least a quarter century. Anchored in a concern that America’s edge in technological innovation was in danger of being lost because of a lack of technologically competent individuals, STEM seeks to reinvigorate teaching and learning about these four interrelated disciplinary fields at all levels of American education.

STEM advocates usually had little to say about the liberal arts, and those involved in teaching the liberal arts usually had little to say about STEM, except to more than occasionally lament why they couldn’t get some of the money being given to evolving STEM programs. Without entering into what has at times devolved into a bitter debate, in one important way STEM fundamentally depends on the arts – pedagogy.

For all the emphasis on involving students in STEM programs, there can be no question that unless the STEM disciplines are taught in a way that interest students and successfully educate them, the entire enterprise is for naught.

To accomplish this, the highest likelihood of success is to be achieved by thinking about how these subjects have been taught in the past, and how that body of historical information, a catalog of what worked, and what didn’t work, can inform and improve teaching in the present and future.

The opportunity to better understand this learning process is made possible by an extraordinary gift of over 250 mathematics textbooks by Dr. Robert G. Clason to the Clarke Historical Library’s textbook collection. Dr. Clason taught mathematics at CMU for over 30 years. In addition to teaching his own course, he became interested in how the subject was taught in the past, and began to assemble a collection of arithmetic textbooks printed from the eighteenth through the twentieth century.

First Lessons in Numbers in their Natural Order,
by John H. French, 1874.
A sampling of Dr. Clason’s collection gives a flavor of what is to be found. Many of the books are, of course, designed to introduce young children to the subject. John H. French’s First lessons in Numbers In their Natural Order, published in 1874 by Harper & Brothers, is typical of a genre of textbooks for children that poured out of publishing houses in the 19th century. Often published as a series, virtually all of them claimed, like French’s First Lessons, to be “unlike other works for the same grade of learners,” a claim begging to be examined today both in terms of its authenticity and, if true, in terms of which teaching method worked best.

Standard Service Arithmetics: Grade Five,
by Scott, Foresman, and Company, 1927.

Grade school books became a highly profitable, and often quite standardized product. Scott, Foresman, and Company’s 1927 Standard Service Arithmetics: Grade 5 seems a nice example of the development of grade school books in the first few decades of the twentieth century. The volume was part of the company’s “standard mathematical service,” edited by George Myers.

Other books in the collection show how teachers were taught to teach the subject. The growth of “normal schools” in the late nineteenth century, institutions of learning designed to educate teachers (of which Central Michigan was originally one), spawned a new market for more advanced books. The Normal Mental Arithmetic by Edward Brooks, published in 1869, was an early example of book designed to sell to this market, while An Arithmetic for High Schools and Normal Schools, published in 1902, moved into an already established market.
The Normal Mental Arithmetic,
by Edward Brooks, 1869. 

Books were also written to meet the needs of special communities. How to Become Quick at Figures; Comprising the Shortest, Quickest, and Best Methods of Business Calculations, tells the potential buyer everything one needs to know about the contents of the book.

Although the principal use of the collection is to discover how arithmetic has been taught over time, sometimes the books offer social insights that go well beyond that subject.

For example, Charles Davies Primary Arithmetic, published originally in 1855 and republished in 1883, included a bit of mathematical history. Lesson IV
noted that “the ten figures of Arithmetic were first used in Arabia.” The next sentence is both stereotypical and a historical, “The Arabs are a wandering people, live in tents, [and] have fine horses and camels.” Nevertheless, a child might wonder how these wandering people in their tents came upon the concept of Arabic numbers?

An Arithmetic for High Schools and Normal
by Benj. Sanborn & Co., 1902.
That question was silently reinforced by Lesson V, printed on the adjoining page. It shows a “Roman father teaching his son to count” using Roman numerals. Seated in his chair with many scrolls at his side, the Roman father is the proverbial picture of an education rooted in a European cultural tradition harkening back millennia. Despite the weight of the imagery, the seven letters he is teaching to his son as a means of counting is not what Davies will be teaching, and Arabia, not Rome is, as lesson 4 notes, “the country from which we got our ten figures.”

Primary Arithmetic,
by Charles Davies, 1855. 
In an age when “scientific racism” was widely taught and believed, to inform children that something as fundamental as the way Europeans counted was rooted in a non-European culture was a subversive act. It could lead to more questions about what other ideas Europeans had learned from people who “live in tents [and] have fine horses and camels.” In a world where Europeans had declared themselves the biological and intellectual summit of natural evolution, such questions were not ones asked lightly.

Dr. Clason’s gift opens up both social questions and questions that apply directly to the success of today’s STEM programs. We are extraordinarily thankful to him for this gift.