We’re so used to the idea that primary school is all about learning to read, write and do sums that it’s startling to think it could ever have been otherwise. Nevertheless, in a provocative little article called “What is Mathematics For?” (which is well worth reading), Underwood Dudley quotes the nineteenth-century educational reformer Amos Bronson Alcott describing American elementary schools in the early nineteenth century:
Until within a few years no studies have been permitted in the day school but spelling, reading, and writing. Arithmetic was taught by a few instructors one or two evenings in a week. But in spite of the most determined opposition arithmetic is now permitted in the day school.
A. B. Alcott, quoted in F. Cajori, The Teaching and History of Mathematics in the United States, 1890.
“Determined opposition” to maths teaching? Can such things be?
PS. For those who are interested: the reason arithmetic was opposed was probably that it was regarded as a vulgar subject, suitable for artisans and tradespeople but not for the educated classes. A gentleman’s education at the time was based solely on Latin and Greek; a gentlewoman’s education, more scandalously still, was almost non-existent.