1913 Math Problems Designed to Motivate Students to Get an Education

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Tuesday, October 14, 1913:

10/13 – 10/17: Nothing worth writing about for these days. Don’t go any place or do anything of much importance.

Postcard with picture of Old Main at Penn State (postally used: 1908)

Postcard with picture of Old Main at Penn State (postmark: 1908)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Since this is the second of five days that Grandma combined into one diary entry, I’m going to pick up where I left off yesterday.

Yesterday, I told you a little about a 1913 math textbook called Rural Arithmetic by John E. Calfee that included a section titled “Educated Labor.” That section included word problems apparently designed to motivate students to continue their education.

Here’s a couple problems from the book:

1.  Two classmates leave the country school, one for work for 75¢ a day with board; the other borrows $250 and goes away for 3 years to a trade school and learns a trade which pays him $1.75 a day with board. Counting each able to average 285 days a year, at the end of 10 years from the time they leave the country school which will have earned more money?

2. The average salary of the man who has completed a college course is about $1000 a year, and the average wages of the man who has completed the common-school studies [an 8th grade education] are almost $450. If it takes 1440 days to complete a high-school and college course, what is the average value of each day spent in taking such a course? (The college-trained man spends 8 years of the work period in school, and has an annual expense of $450 for college.)

Rural Arithmetic (1913)

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22 Responses

  1. I can answer the first question, but I am having difficulty understanding exactly what they want to know for the second one. The cost of college needs to be spread over multiple working years to get a fair value for the education.

    • You’re right that the time value of money needs to be considered. I also thought that the second problem could be interpreted in several ways–and wondered what the “right” answer was. It seemed to me that many of the word problems in this textbook had issues–and my sense is that the book did not go through as much of a review process as a modern text would.

  2. Well, at least, they are more sensible questions than we used to get about the speed of trains etc!

  3. Very interesting…I love what you’re doing here, Sheryl!

  4. But what about Helena? She sounds really in the doldrums at the moment?

    • She;d been putting in long hours for the past several weeks helping with the corn harvest–and I think that she was totally exhausted at this point.

  5. I was and still am horrible at maths and reading these maths problems still gives a nervous shivers ;0) How I love my computer and calculator !

    • I know the feeling. I always especially hated the problems where a long column of numbers needs to be added. It seemed like I always made a silly mistake.

  6. Could I please have a spelling/english/grammar question instead???

  7. An annual expense of $450!!!!!

  8. I used to hate those types of math questions! We all remember the if a train leaves ______ at 8o MPH and the other train leaves _____ at 65 MPH when will they meet blah blah blah!

    • It’s kind of scary how ingrained some of those horrid math problems have become ingrained in our memories. :) Hopefully math curriculum and instruction are better today.

  9. This makes me feel so much for one of my sons. He was excellent at Maths and struggled at English language. He would become stumped at such questions as he would spend all his time fathoming out the words, whereas he would easily be able to solve the Maths.

  10. I’m generally pretty good at “word problems” as they used to call them in my grade-school days; but I just don’t understand what they’re asking for in the second problem. Do they give the answer?

    And yes, it’s quite obvious that they’re trying to motivate students to go on to higher education.

  11. My first reaction to the first problem was — “that completely depends on the value of the board!” You could mock the second problem by re-writing the first to include the time spent menu planning, shopping, cooking, washing up daily, and the money saved by not having to pay for fuel to cook and travel to the market. Am I contrary today, or what?

    • You’re only slightly contrary. :) These old math problems definitely had “issues” and it;s fun to interpret them in different ways.

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