I've spoken to several people who attended US universities in the decades before I was born, and I was somewhat surprised to find that it seemed to be common (based on the anecdotes I received) for non-STEM majors to top out at what is now considered high school algebra (e.g. things like competing the square, and basic conic sections).

What would have been a typical or average mathematics curriculum for a US university student around 1950 who was not majoring in mathematics, a research science, or engineering? Would a student majoring in, say, English, art history, or theology have expected to have gone further than basic algebra?

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    $\begingroup$ There's generally no math requirement for humanities graduates, NOW, except maybe applied sciences like psych or soc or econ, where there will be a stats requirement and perhaps calculus for the latter. So I'm failing to see what you find so peculiar about the older situation. See here, click on the "core curriculum": bulletin.columbia.edu/columbia-college/… $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Nov 25, 2019 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ The current situation in California is just a little bit different. Non-STEM students can take one college-level math course, which can be statistics, which does not really need more than basic algebra. (Intermediate algebra had been a requirement for statistics until recently, but it has become obvious that was being used as a filter, rather than it being necessary for understanding statistics at the level it is taught.) $\endgroup$
    – Sue VanHattum
    Nov 25, 2019 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ It should perhaps be noted that geometry is literally one of the liberal arts. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quadrivium $\endgroup$ Nov 25, 2019 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ The article ams.sunysb.edu/~tucker/MathHistory.pdf contains some real information about math offerings in US universities pre-1950. An important caveat: degrees were not structured then as they are now. The "STEM" idea is contemporary, and analyzing the past in terms of it is anachronistic. $\endgroup$
    – Dan Fox
    Nov 27, 2019 at 7:24
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    $\begingroup$ Here is a discussion of "Freshman Mathematics" by Morris Kline, including a review of the predominant as well as reform efforts ca. 1954. The article followed the 1953 publication of Kline's Mathematics in Western Culture. $\endgroup$
    – user1815
    Nov 27, 2019 at 14:40

2 Answers 2


I'll quote a few short things from the (fantastic!) articles shared in comments by Dan Fox and user1527. Morris Kline in 1954 wrote:

What have we been feeding the liberal arts students? The almost universal diet has been college algebra and trigonometry. I believe that these courses are a complete waste of time...

Kline proceeds to outline a plan for a historically-minded math-survey/appreciation course for liberal arts students, revolving around his textbook, Mathematics in Western Culture (published 1953, after having taught 3 sections of such a course at NYU in the prior two years).

Apparently the idea of a survey/appreciation course had been floating around for at least some decades before that, because Tucker writes in his 2015 historical survey:

While the early MAA educational activities focused on secondary school preparation in mathematics, there was a 1928 MAA report (MAA [22]) addressing complaints about the first two years of college mathematics; also see Schaaf [31]. It acknowledged calls to offer a survey course of mathematical ideas with historical aspects for non-technical students...

Tucker notes that calculus didn't become a standard freshman college subject until a major disruption in the 1950's, when the Cold War response to Sputnik -- and observations that WWII was won largely by pure mathematicians working in ballistics, signaling, rocketry, cryptography, and nuclear design -- caused a massive social call and glorification of math and physics. Physics faculty started expecting calculus usage in freshman physics courses, and math departments followed suit. Up until that time, a student taking first-year courses would likely have only college algebra and trigonometry available, from my reading here.

On that latter major revolution that Tucker describes in the 1950's, he points out that in the early 1960's, as many as 5% of incoming college students were interested in being mathematics majors, while by 1975 it had dropped to 1.1%, and has stayed at around that level ever since (partly explained by the spin-off of computer science and statistics majors).

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    $\begingroup$ I have some info in another post on MO about the Tucker piece (and another) that might be of some interest: mathoverflow.net/a/151910 $\endgroup$ Dec 23, 2019 at 21:09

This is a little later than the 1950's, but it's been a while since your question was asked.

I used to teach math at the Ohio State University in the early 1980's and even then, anyone getting a B.A., who were basically the students with non-STEM majors, were only required to take one basic algebra course to complete their degree. If I recall correctly, the B.A. majors could even substitute a certain Philosophy course in Logic for the algebra course and therefore not take any math at all in order to obtain their B.A.'s.

In the present, various places I teach part-time in my retirement allow non-STEM students to obtain their degrees after passing one, single fluff course in math made up of various topics like very basic statistics, very basic geometry, basic algebraic equations, and basic exponential equations.

  • $\begingroup$ True. For a time we had a special math course (we may have privately called it "math for poets" or something) that students could take to satisfy their one math requirement. $\endgroup$ Dec 22, 2019 at 10:35
  • $\begingroup$ Yes! "Math for Poets!" That's right! $\endgroup$ Dec 24, 2019 at 4:58

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