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Archives Spotlight: The School Mathematics Study Group Records

The School Mathematics Study Group Records

By Kristy Sorensen

The following article, featured as part of the Archives of American Mathematics Spotlight, was published in the December 2006 issue of MAA FOCUS. The full issue is available here (pdf).

One of the most comprehensive and distinctive collections at the Archives of American Mathematics is the School Mathematics Study Group (SMSG) Records. Through 95 linear feet of files and publications, the SMSG Records document a fascinating era of mathematics education.

Under the direction of Edward G. Begle (Yale University, Stanford University), the SMSG created and implemented a primary and secondary school curriculum between 1958 and 1977 widely known as New Math.

New Math endeavored to improve mathematics education by emphasizing understanding of underlying mathematical concepts rather than application of computational algorithms. It introduced basic ideas from advanced mathematics, such as sets, axioms, and functions, to younger students.

SMSG worksheet

A worksheet from Mathematics for the Elementary School: Book 1, Student's Text, Unit No. 52 by the School Mathematics Study Group, 1965.
Source: The SMSG Records at the Archives of American Mathematics.

Begle admired the approach of Max Beberman (University of Illinois), who designed lessons that prompted students to discover mathematical principles on their own, but this approach required highly skilled teachers. The SMSG strove to create a curriculum that most teachers could learn to teach with only an hour per week of extra study.

The New Math movement drew widespread praise as well as extensive criticism. Critics, such as applied mathematician and mathematics historian Morris Kline (New York University), objected that the New Math curriculum aimed to prepare children for careers in pure mathematics, while primary and secondary mathematics education should focus on useful applications of mathematics with the goal of functional numeracy.

Both praise and criticism are included in the collection. One letter, from E.J. McShane, a professor of mathematics at the University of Virginia and a former president of both the AMS and MAA, to Begle, addresses criticisms of the SMSG program from physicists, as told to McShane by Joe Weyl (son of Hermann Weyl). The letter highlights the ongoing conflict in the classroom between pure and applied mathematics.

Letter from E.J. McShane to Edward Begle

Letter from E.J. McShane to Edward Begle, November 22, 1961. (Click to enlarge.)
Source: The SMSG Records at the Archives of American Mathematics.

The SMSG Records document the history of the writing, implementation, and evaluation of the SMSG curriculum. The records consist largely of the director's files, and include correspondence, meeting agendas and minutes, grant proposals, financial records, newsletters, drafts of publications, tests, and training films. The collection also includes a comprehensive collection of SMSG textbooks and other publications as well as the records and publications of the National Longitudinal Study of Mathematical Abilities (NLSMA).

Recently, in order to make the collection more accessible to researchers, the archivist transferred the records from hanging file folders in filing cabinets to archival boxes. In the process, staff enhanced the inventory by adding more detail to the existing finding aid.

The SMSG Records are closely related to the New Mathematical Library Records, another collection at the Archives of American Mathematics. The New Mathematical Library was originally a publishing arm of the SMSG project, before it was taken over by the Mathematical Association of America and became a separate concern.

Kristy Sorensen served as the archivist at the Archives of American Mathematics until November 2006.

The Archives of American Mathematics (AAM) is a unit of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. Individuals interested in conducting research or donating materials or who have general questions about the AAM should contact Carol Mead, Archivist:, (512) 495-4539.

Revised on July 12, 2010.