Monday, October 27, 2008

Elitist Presidents

A coworker discovered something interesting today. In 1876, while serving as a member of the House of Representatives, James A. Garfield, future President of the United States, wrote a novel proof of the Pythagorean theorem.

Can you even imagine a President knowing enough math, and being clever enough, to propose a proof to a  mathematical theorem? I couldn't, so I decided to do a quick bit of research to see which Presidents would  plausibly know enough math to come close.

To be fair, it doesn't take a ton of math to propose a proof to the Pythagorean theorem. Garfield's proof is mostly visual, backed up with algebra.  But let's pretty much ignore the inspiration for this search, and just pick something that we can estimate: which recent presidents, if any, knew calculus? I'm sticking to recent presidents only mostly because I'm lazy, but also because it becomes harder to estimate these things the further you go from the modern education system; I'll bet Jefferson knew calculus, but I'm not sure how I'd estimate that from his biography. I'm going with the last 10.

So, without further ado:
  1. Dwight D. Eisenhower: Graduated from West Point in the upper half of his class in 1915. West Point has always been primarily an engineering school. Chances are fairly good that Eisenhower took calculus; if he went to West Point today, he'd be required to have three calculus courses, and the school has become less focused on engineering since he was there.
  2. John F. Kennedy: According to one biography I found online, Kennedy "disliked math and physics and refused to apply himself in those courses." It's possible he took calculus (I can't find information one way or the other), but it's highly doubtful that he "knew" calculus.
  3. Lyndon B. Johnson: "Doubtful," according to someone I won't specifically name because there's a chance she could get in trouble for not saying, "Of course, LBJ knew everything!" But, yeah, doubtful. Maybe it's just Austin bias, but I'm pretty sure San Marcos still doesn't teach calculus.
  4. Richard Nixon: While the interwebs have a calculus joke about a Nixon misspeak, I can't find anything either way about whether Nixon ever studied calculus. His education was far from anything where I'd expect calculus, but I can't say with any certainty whether he did or not. (side note from that Nixon misspeak link: holy crap, Joseph Biden knows at least a little calculus!)
  5. Gerald Ford: Ford graduated from U of M with a degree in political science and economics. I find this absolutely shocking, but it's absolutely possible that Ford studied calculus.
  6. James Earl Carter, Jr.: Jimmy Carter received a BS in physics from the Naval Academy. He likely has studied calculus more than I have.
  7. Ronald Reagan: Reagan majored in economics and sociology at Eureka College. As with Ford, it's possible that Reagan studied calculus. Holy crap.
  8. George H. W. Bush: BS in economics. Again, huh, who'ld'a thunk it?
  9. William Jefferson Clinton: Studied foreign service, government, and law. Possible but unlikely that he ever had a calc course.
  10. George W. Bush: Studied history, but lots of prep schools and such. It's possible Bush has had a calc course. There's simply no way in hell Bush has ever learned calculus, but he may have had a calc course.
I'll score it as:
  • Definitely/very likely: 2
  • Maybe: 4
  • Probably not: 3
  • I refuse to believe that it's even possible: 1
Then again, what do I know? I never would have thought Biden would have had enough calc to remember what an inflection point was.

Update: For anyone wondering:
  • John McCain presumably got some sort of degree when he graduated from the Naval Academy in 1958, but I can't find what it was. Reportedly McCain did "just enough to pass the classes he didn't find stimulating," and that included math. He may have taken calc, but he didn't learn it.
  • Barack Obama, much like Bill Clinton, spent a lot of time in college, but in areas that didn't likely pass through calculus (BA in political science, law degree).


Libby Hickson said...

This was a super cool post brother! Of course I especially like it because it shows that I didn't name my boy after no dummy! ;-)

Die Anyway said...

Well, I'm in the "took the course but didn't learn it" category. But I aced my Cobol, Pascal, and PL2 classes and did pretty damn well in Zoo, Botany and microbiology. It would be nice to think that the President was/is smarter than me but I think I can beat W and a few of those others you listed. On the other hand, they obviously have something that I don't. They got to be frickin' president while I'm a lowly computer programmer. Sigh...

Jon the Geek said...

I want to make sure I'm very clear about this: I don't think understanding calculus has any bearing whatsoever on whether you're a good president. It just blew my mind that a president had proposed a novel proof of the Pythagorean theorem, so it got me wondering about the math ability of other presidents :)

Die Anyway said...

Yes, I think we have just gotten used to presidents who are mediocre in the brain department. I don't even expect W to be able to put the proper subject and predicate in a sentence much less perform math beyond addition and subtraction. I think we should, as a nation, raise our expectations. A while back PBS ran a poll with the question "Do you think Sarah Palin is qualified to be vice-president?" The poll has been thoroughly crashed by both sides of the aisle so the results are meaningless but I was intrigued by the question. Qualified? How? According to the constitution she's the right age and the right birth location. In a minimalist sense that means she's qualified. But shouldn't we have some stricter criteria for the people who are going to run our country? I'm thinking minimum IQ around 115, maybe a certain SAT score, and some other variety of education and experience.
On the other hand I've heard that the guy with the supposed highest IQ in America is a God believer.

Dave said...

Very cool—thanks for the link to my Nixon/Biden post.

Just to clarify—Nixon's remark isn't a misspeak. It truly is an implicit statement about a third derivative.

1st derivative: we are experiencing inflation.
2nd derivative: the rate of inflation is increasing.
3rd derivative: the rate of increase of inflation is decreasing

(I'm sure Nixon had no idea that he was referring to the 3rd derivative, but he was.)

Jon the Geek said...

Thanks! Hmm, I guess you're right; it DOES seem to be what Nixon actually meant to say. So not so much a misspeak as a really clumsy way to say something :)

Bruce Thomas said...

For an anecdote about Eisenhower and integral calculus at West Point, read Stephen Ambrose's biography of Ike, page 24.

Anonymous said...

In graduate school (late 80's), I was told the "fact" that only two US presidents knew calculus, Hoover and Carter (both engineers). I have often wondered whether it was a true fact, how such a fact could be verified, and what the updated version of it would be, including presidents since 1990. I honestly would not be surprised if it were still true, especially since it is quite possible to graduate with a degree in economics without taking calculus.

Jon Harmon said...

Interesting. I still think it's likely that Eisenhower and McCain had at least one calc course at their respective Academies, but they might have only done enough to get by (and I can't say for certain that they had it without, ya know, actually working on this rather than doing a quick bit of Wikipedia'ing :)