Image Provided by the Stockbridge Collection of the USMA Archives.
Written by Archives Curator Alicia Mauldin-Ware
Math has been taught at West Point since the early years of the Academy, but did you know there was a time when the Math curriculum was in jeopardy of not being taught? President Roosevelt himself raised the question of the relative importance of mathematics education to the military officer in 1908 in a letter addressed to the Secretary of War:
January 11, 1908
To the Secretary of War:
It seems to me a very great misfortune to lay so much stress upon mathematics in the curriculum at West Point and fail to have languages taught in accordance with the best modern conversation methods. I should like to have this matter taken up seriously. I have several times called attention to it, but nothing has been done. Mathematical training is a necessary thing for an engineer or an artilleryman, doubtless; but I esteem it of literally no importance for the cavalryman or infantryman. If tomorrow I have to choose officers from the regular army for important positions in the event of war, I should care no more for their mathematical training than for their knowledge of whist or chess. A man who learns a language by studying a book, but can not speak it, loses at least half the benefit obtainable, I would like a full report on this matter.
Also, is there not danger of too much mere book learning being required in the Fort Riley school? We need soldiers, not mere students; or, rather, we need students only so far as study helps toward soldiership. A man with an eye to the country, who can take care of men and horses, and whose administrative capacity is developed, is more valuable than a closed student, to the Army.
What? Down play the role of mathematics in the course of study? How could this be? The leaders of West Point considered mathematics so important that two acting Professors of Mathematics – one to teach algebra and the other geometry – were appointed shortly after the establishment of the Military Academy in March 1802. A permanent Professor of Mathematics, however, was not authorized until
April 29, 1812, when an Act of Congress reorganized the Academy and enlarged the academic staff. Capt. Alden Partridge was appointed to the position on April 13, 1813.
By the early 1820’s, trigonometry, mensuration, (calculations for measuring areas, quantities, etc.) and surveying had been added to the mathematics curriculum, and calculus was added shortly thereafter. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, the department expanded under the direction of several long-tenured professors, but the curriculum underwent few major changes.
This is not to say that 1908 was the first time that the Math Department’s curriculum came under fire. The following is part of the answer the Academic Board gave in 1843 to certain criticisms of the course of instruction made by a Board of Officers of which General Winfield Scott was president. It is interesting in showing the objectives and views of the Academic Board at that time:
The Academic Board believe that one of the most important objects of the Academy is to subject each Cadet, previous to his promotion to a higher grade in the Army, to a thorough course of mental as well as military discipline, to teach him to reason accurately, and readily to apply right principles to cases of daily occurrence in the life of a soldier. They are satisfied that a strict course of mathematical and philosophical study, with applications to the various branches of military science, is by far the best calculated to bring about this end, and that the present scientific course at the Academy, the result of the experience of many years, is in its main features such a course.
They are aware that many of the Cadets, as in the case with most of those who pursue a scientific course at other institutions, will have little occasion to make practical applications of the many mathematical formulae which they meet, and that they may have passed over certain problems without thoroughly understanding their meaning in all their points. Still if the course has been carefully taught, the reasoning faculties will have been strongly exercised and disciplined and a system and habit of thought acquired which are invaluable in the pursuit of any profession and as desirable for the infantry or dragoon officer as for any other officer in the service….”
Based on the opinion of the Academic Board, the course of math study, with few modifications and extensions, remained virtually unchanged until September 1902 when a revised curriculum caused the Mathematical Department to yield forty days of instruction (one-hundred eighty hours) to the Department of Modern Languages. Despite this decrease in mathematics instruction, it was only six short years later that President Roosevelt’s letter questioned whether too much math was still being
In spite of Roosevelt’s concerns, math continued to be a significant course of instruction at the Academy. In the years since, the mathematics curriculum has been adjusted to encompass mathematical trends of military importance. Teaching methods have continued to stress the fundamental military qualifications developed by mathematical study: mastery of the reasoning process, self-reliance, practical applications of mathematics, and the role of mathematics in warfare.
Today’s cadets can’t get away from math!
You can find additional records concerning the math or other academic departments in our Special Collections and Archives Division of the Library.