I offer you this, without further comment: a 1915 New York Times story headlined COLUMBIA MEN BURN CALCULUS IN THE SKY.
Oh, who am I kidding? That headline is so glorious, it needs further comment. A lot of comment. Let me say it again, so the poetry of it can sink in.
IN THE SKY.
When did the New York Times stop writing subheadings like “Sophomores Tie Demon to Balloons and Send Him Heavenward in Flames THEN DANCE IN PAJAMAS”? We truly live in a dark age for print journalism.
Anyway, this was an annual tradition. After completing their mandatory calculus course, the Columbia sophomores would create an effigy called Dr. Calculus, whom they would then torture.
Fun times! The story goes:
Here we hit the “bizarre sexism” part of the tale!
Columbia was all-male at the time. (In fact, it was the last Ivy League university to admit women, holding out until the mid 1980s). This particular year, it seems that two young Barnard students had the audacity to join in the festivities.
I, for one, sympathize with the “pink and blue visions.” Who doesn’t want to see Dr. Calculus destroyed in effigy?
Anyway, I see two crucial takeaways:
- Calculus has been a required course in elite education for over a century.
- For that entire time, it has been a target of loathing and resentment.
One might draw the conclusion: “Calculus requirements are so outdated! We’ve been groaning about it for literally ten decades! Just replace it with data science already!”
This isn’t necessarily wrong.
But one might also draw an opposite conclusion: “Calculus has apparently been serving the same function for over a century. It must be serving this function well, to have stuck around so long. What, then, is its function?”
I have my suspicions: namely, that calculus is American education’s foremost gatekeeper, and that its gatekeeping is a feature desired by many in the educational system, including, at times, the competing students themselves.
Not saying I like gatekeeping. It depresses the heck out of me. But any proposal to replace calculus should consider what will take its place as gatekeeper, lest the job fall to something even more problematic.
Also, a final perplexing note: In 1915, women were excluded not only from university mathematics, but also from its ritual destruction. This seems grossly unfair. If you want to keep them from learning the mathematics, shouldn’t you encourage them to burn it in effigy? Make up your mind, patriarchy!
My new book is CHANGE IS THE ONLY CONSTANT: THE WISDOM OF CALCULUS IN A MADCAP WORLD. If you wish to hold a book-burning, please make it coed.