Revolutionary Math

Cape Cod in the winter is one of those marvelous places filled with interesting shops and people waiting in the quiet winter time for the soon to come crowds. It was on one of those pretend spring is here days in February that we went to visit a dear friend on the Cape and then take a lovely drive to empty beaches, delicious lobster rolls, and of course a bookstore or two. It was on that last stop, just before the bridge, that I came upon a hidden treasure, a math textbook from 1788. The author Nicolas Pike entitled it, A New and Complete System of Arithmetic: Composed for the Use of the Citizens of the United States. Pike, proud of his brand new nation so recently created, says that it needed a book to educate its newly minted citizens in mathematics.

It is however the opinion of not a few, who are conspicuous for their knowledge in the mathematics, that the books, now in use among us, are generally deficient in illustration and application of the rules; of the truth of which, the general complaint among schoolmasters is a strong confirmation….as the United States are now an independent nation, it was judged that a system might be calculated more suitable to our meridian, than those heretofore published.
Pikes Arithmetic, Nicholas Pike, 1788, Preface.

The book follows, for the most part, the sequence and topics laid out by Leonardo of Pisa in Liber abbaci. Though it lacks pictures, it is full of contemporary problems, problems faced by farmers, shopkeepers, traders, surveyors, sailors, and even militia. It is full of such real-world problems and full of tables to help the users to calculate the answers to those problems. It was a reference book as well as a textbook. It was designed for this new country, “suitable to our meridian” including decimal currency.

Over the past 230 we have desiccated this work, taking out its focus on problem solving in the real world, both in the problems given and in the tools for solving them. I love the thought that in What if Math we are returning to Nicholas Pike’s 1788 vision, to focus school learning on the kinds of problems students will need to solve and giving them training in the tools and skills they will need to use. Yes, this was a revolutionary vision then and it is a revolutionary vision today. But it is a vision for a nation whose promise has been: to enable all of its citizens to thrive. I would love to have been able to take Nicholas Pike on our Tour. I think he would have liked it.