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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!)
- 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.
- James Earl Carter, Jr.: Jimmy Carter received a BS in physics from the Naval Academy. He likely has studied calculus more than I have.
- Ronald Reagan: Reagan majored in economics and sociology at Eureka College. As with Ford, it's possible that Reagan studied calculus. Holy crap.
- George H. W. Bush: BS in economics. Again, huh, who'ld'a thunk it?
- William Jefferson Clinton: Studied foreign service, government, and law. Possible but unlikely that he ever had a calc course.
- 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).