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Mathematics Education at West Point: The First Hundred Years - Conclusion

V. Frederick Rickey and Amy Shell-Gellasch

As the century wore on, emphasis was placed more and more on teaching the cadets the analytic method as opposed to the strict rote learning of traditional instruction. The new texts introduced by the faculty incorporated this new focus.[1] The 1860 Report of the Board of Visitors states that: “The introduction of the analytic method into the course of Natural Philosophy and into the preparatory course of Mathematics in consequence will probably form an era in the public education of the United States.”

Though topics were expanded, no new subject were added to the mathematics curriculum for most of the century. After the introduction of descriptive geometry and the calculus in the nineteen-teens, the next major topics to be added were determinants and the method of least squares in 1880.

In 1899, a young cadet by the name of Douglas MacArthur came to the Academy. He graduated in 1903 and returned to run the Academy as Superintendent from 1919 to 1922. Like his predecessor of a hundred years earlier, MacArthur had new ideas and a force of personality that would see the Academy remade once again. As with Thayer, every aspect of cadet life was impacted, to include the methods of instruction, curriculum and texts. The fledgling Academy had no set graduation requirements and a limited curriculum. Within the first decades of the nineteenth century, cadets were in class long hours studying primarily mathematics. With the start of the twentieth century, the tide had turned toward self-directed study outside of class and a broader curriculum, with a growing emphasis on the humanities, though the only area of study would remain engineering until the 1980s. However, the impact of the West Point curriculum had already spread throughout the young nation. Since the United States Military Academy was the foremost technical school in the nation during the nineteenth century, a large number of other institutions capitalized on this experience either directly through former Academy faculty members, or indirectly through the use of texts expressly written for use at the Academy. Through its methods of instruction, its curriculum, and its faculty, West Point helped mold American academics in its own image.

[1]Keep, Robert P., The System of Instruction at West Point: Can it be incorporated in our Colleges?, The New Englander, CVI, Jan 1869, pp. 1-18. Available from “Cornell University Making of America” online.