chapter  4
34 Pages

Republican Arithmetic

I n 1801 the editor of a fledgling Philadelphia journal ofliterary miscellany wrote abrief artide in which he described, in a light and humorous style, his aversion to arithmetic. "Oliver

Oldschool"-the pen name is significant-confessed to readers of The Portfolio that he had never studied much arithmetic be-<.:ause he considered it a shopkeeper's business: "It always appeared to me that a scholar could attain the object of his mission to the university, without any assistance from the first four rules [of arithmetic] ." His college friends had ridiculed him, but in rebuttal he cited such diverse authorities as Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, and the Calvinist John Knox to show in what low esteem past worthies had held arithmetic. He readily dismissed a current theory of the value of arithmetic: "We are magisterially told that this study, of all others, most dosely fixes the attention. An argument shallow, untrue, and easily vanquished. Any object, that engrosses the mind, will induce ahabit of attention."·

The significance of Oldschool' s objection to arithmetic lies in the fact that an antiarithmetic argument with a long and serious tradition had by 1801 come to be presented as an amusing filler piece. It was undoubtedly Oldschool's personal view that too dose an attention to numbers was demeaning, that "the influence that arithmetical minutiae has gradually obtained over the heart" was deplorable; yet he titled his essay "Farrago No. V" (farrago means "hodgepodge"), and he led off with a bit of entertaining doggerel that detracted from the potential seriousness of his message:

Our youth, proficients in a noble art, Divide a farthing to the hundredth part.