Let’s All Burn Calculus in Effigy

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.

Columbia men.

Burn calculus.



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:

  1. Calculus has been a required course in elite education for over a century.
  2. 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One might draw the conclusion: “Calculus requirements are so outdated!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.

15 thoughts on “Let’s All Burn Calculus in Effigy

  1. https://mathwithbaddrawings.com/2019/11/20/the-burning-of-dr-calculus/

    Jamie Roberts WAFAPA Past Co-President//2020 Graduation Coordinator 608-850-5155 (home) 585-760-9621 (cell)

    On Wed, Nov 20, 2019 at 11:00 AM Math with Bad Drawings wrote:

    > Ben Orlin posted: “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 ” >

  2. Too funny. But the gatekeeper function is indisputable by any honest person. An artificial and counterproductive cap on medical, dental, and vet candidates that has zero to do with requisite intellectual or personality traits in my opinion. And a bad advertisement for higher math outside of analysis. Why not introduce proofs and rigor in friendly graph theory/discrete mathematics classes?

  3. Well, Plato put a sign over his academy: No Admission Without Geometry. But another fellow told us that in his house (by which he meant our house) there were many rooms, presumably each having a door. Why should there be just one gatekeeper for them all? Chem lab was the gatekeeper that kept me out of the physics Ph.D. to perpetual adjunct swimlane, so I went and studied English, under the guise of Communications and Mass Media, thus evading the English Department’s gatekeepers, and wound up doing programming for a living and learning historical linguistics for fun.

  4. I liked calculus mostly. I got bored with it once getting to vectors. But after getting through that, I quite enjoyed things like Real Analysis and Abstract Algebra. Topology sucked.

  5. Learning to move from givens to a conclusion like in geometry and abstract algebra in particular is great preparation for approaching life’s problems. Way too many ignore their starting point when making decisions. Math is great discipline.

    1. I love this aspect of math; it drew me in as a student, and still excites me as a teacher.

      My understanding, though, is that researchers have found very little evidence that mathematical skills generalize to other domains. There’s a correlation (people who reason logically throughout their lives also tend to enjoy this aspect of math) but not much evidence of transfer.

      But I haven’t given up hope on this. Eugenia Cheng, for example, wrote a book (“The Art of Logic”) trying to forge these connections more explicitly. A more overt approach like hers might have a stronger impact.

  6. Calculus is required because there are an awful lot of fields where things are most easily and usefully expressed in the language of calculus. It’s hard to talk about chemical reactions, population statistics, membrane dynamics, circuit behavior or mechanical action without calculus. One obviously can, but it is much harder. It’s like algebra. You write symbols on a page. You manipulate the symbols subject to certain rules, and the real world obeys the results. It’s the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics, to borrow a phrase.

    Data science, is a lot less fundamental. You really need calculus to understand the statistical and scaling aspects.

    The gatekeeping course for mathematics tends to be analysis these days.

  7. Indeed, yes ! My maternal grandfather took an extension course at Teachers’ College (across 120th ST from Columbia University), sometime around 1900. A few times, in the course of conversation, he mentioned the “high jinks” of Columbia students at “The Burning of the Calculus”, but never elaborated. Good to see there is corrabative documentation in no less an authority as the New York Times. Clear the event must have been annual. as curriculum was more routine and fixed in those days, calculus a subject every college graduate (males only at CU in those days!) should know about, and certainly a subject: love it or hate it.

    1. Wow, that’s so cool to hear the story corroborated by a family connection! Any other memories of the “high jinks” your grandfather described?

  8. Knowing how to go from givens to a conclusion, like one does in subjects like geometry and abstract algebra in particular, is excellent preparation for tackling the challenges that one will face in real life. When it comes to making decisions, far too many people don’t consider where they began. Arithmetic is a wonderful form of self-discipline.

  9. We can appreciate the beauty and impact of the headline, exploring the complete story behind it would provide a more comprehensive understanding of the context and intended message.

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