Elsie Begle Interview, Part 2 of 3

  • Roberts: This is tape 1, side B continuing the interview with Mrs. Elsie Begle. Now I was just about to ask whether Ed was much affected by thecompetition between the United States and the Soviet Union with regards to his ideas about education. Begle: No, it never, that I recall, ever entered into it, though it might have to some local politicians who thought it was a communist plot, I don't knownationally. Roberts: I was thinking, for instance, of the alarm that some people found when the Russians launched their Sputnik satellite. I wondered if that affectedEd's thinking. Begle: I think actually it, I don't remember his saying anything, but my feeling was that it was a help because it made people aware of the need forscientific education and mathematics. So I don't think there was any, I never heard of any criticism of it being communist inspired or dominated in any way. I don't think that was a, and ofcourse, the rest of Europe was so, he felt more opposed to European and English mathematicians who were so totally elitist and had no conception of national pre-college program in mathematicseducation. And they all, I remember at Yale, at the New Haven State Teacher's College there was a mathematics educator, but I don't think Ed thought he knew the time of day. That was thetrouble, because most teachers college professors who train teachers don't know mathematics, and so, Ed thought it was, he wanted to really get student teachers more involved in knowing whatmathematics was all about because that was a total mystery to them. I remember one of our daughters, Sally, had a fourth grade, now I guess she was in junior high, had a seventh grade teacherwho gave Sally a D in math. Ed was outraged, but he didn't go to talk to the teacher, I did. And actually Sally was, as I said, she was very bright, she went Kent School, that was it. And I satthere in New Haven, well, throughout I think Connecticut, Massachusetts, public school teachers at that time were trained in Catholic teachers colleges. I remember this teacher she sat theredoing her rosary while she was talking to me, and I went home in a fit. I said I'm going to keep religion out of the public schools. Roberts: One thing that I meant to ask a little earlier, was how much mathematics education did you have yourself? Begle: [laughter] Very little. I took college algebra and that was the extent of my, I had had a great fear of mathematics. Actually I wasn't a dumbbell, Iwas Phi Beta Kappa, but not in mathematics. Roberts: What was your major? Begle: Well that's a funny story. I was a classics major, but that was partly because I had a friend in high school whose father was a professor of classicsand they had lived in Italy until, I guess it was the mid-thirties when they got out of Italy because of Mussolini really. And she wanted me, I was the editor of the high school paper and shewanted Catherine to work on the school paper and she took a great fancy to me. Her mother, not Catherine. Poor Catherine was. She told me to apply for this classics scholarship, she said,"Elsie, it's good for four years of tuition." So I took the test and I got the classics scholarship, so I had to major in classics, well actually it was fun because they had wonderful classicsprofessors. But my heart was in journalism, and I was the first woman managing editor of the daily. So that's where my heart was, but anyway, I'm no mathematician. Roberts: Did any of your children go into mathematics in any form? Begle: Not really, although my two sons, one is at IBM and he works in engineering and mathematics, so I think he is and he does design so I think that'srelated. And my youngest son has a PhD in marine biology, icthyology actually, and he couldn't get a job. He had a couple of fellowships in Washington after he got his PhD, and I think heperhaps is still bitter because he would have loved to have taught at a university, but his professor, who was not, did nothing to help him find a job; in mathematics any of Ed's students, Edwould have gone to bat to help them find a job, and did a great deal. But Doug was in the second year of this fellowship in Washington and feeling very much at a dead end, and he happened tosee on the internet a job opening for someone who was, I don't know if it was computer-wise or science-wise who could write the English language. Well Doug writes very well, so he sent hisapplication on the internet, and they called him up after they got his resume and hired him. So his wife was working at the Smithsonian, she's very bright too. She's Filipino. Anyway, they wereoffered this job with this small start-up company in, well, it was north of San Francisco, Connectix. Anyway, it was one of these small companies that had a great idea, and they were swallowedup by a bigger company, and Doug would have had to go to Portland or Seattle or something like that. So then he got another job with Connectix, which was in San Mateo which was then bought upby, I don't know, anyway he ended up at Sun Microsystems. And he's doing very well as a I guess he's a technical writer and analyst. His wife is at Microsoft, so they are in the hub of SiliconValley. To the extent, I think Doug has, I think both Eddie and Doug have a mathematical precision of thinking that is an offshoot, not a direct descendant. But I think that the integrity ofmathematical thinking is perhaps carried over. Roberts: Would you say that Ed volunteered enthusiastically for SMSG? Begle: I don't know that I'd call it enthusiastic, but I think he had enough experience with lousy textbooks and teachers to understand the real depth of theproblem, so he fell right into it. I think he felt too that mathematicians are so austere in their thought, and the thought of having anything that would be useful in schools below calculuslevel, they would think beneath them. I don't know if it was enthusiasm or a sense of a mission. Roberts: Now did Ed enjoy the SMSG summer writing sessions? Begle: Yes, they were wonderful. I don't know that he enjoyed them as much as we did, his family. Because we entertained constantly, especially when we gotout here. Ed left everything to me as far as. So I came out on my own and I bought the first house I looked at, but it happened to be a perfect house because we had seven children and weentertained a lot, so this house had a wonderful back yard and so we had people over constantly. I say we had seven children, I didn't tell you about my other son who committed suicide. He wasactually probably the brightest of the boys, but he wasn't mathematical, and he was very insecure, and he was delighted to be accepted at Stanford, and then he flunked out the first year. Itwas, I don't think we had any idea that he was in trouble or we would have rallied around, gotten tutors, but I think it was an economics course that really finished him off. He didn't want togo to another college and so he looked for jobs and I, as I look back, we didn't really get enough psychiatric help for him or any, so he finally just went up to Reno and shot himself. It was aterrible tragedy for Ed and me and the other members, our other six children. Roberts: Now in 1959 there was an education conference at Woods Hole that Ed participated in. Do you have any recollection of that? Begle: I went there, I went to it, yeah. It wasn't purely math. No, it was very interesting and Ed enjoyed it. He appreciated the fact that it was lookinginto all the scientific branches. And he thought it was fun, I thought it was fun. I'd never been to Woods Hole. That wasn't the one I was thinking of. There was one at Chatham. Roberts: When was that? Begle: I'm trying to think. It was after we came to California. So I'm not sure whether it was Woods Hole that he went to or this one at Chatham, which isjust outside Boston. It was at a beach hotel before the season. I think that was all mathematics. Roberts: I know that the Woods Hole conference resulted in a little book by Jerome Bruner. Begle: Yes. Ed wasn't there, but he did know Jerry Bruner. Roberts: Well, but at least according to the list of people, Ed was there. Begle: Well, then it's my memory that fails. But I do know that yes, he was involved with Jerry Bruner. So he must have been there, yeah. Roberts: Now when Ed, as Ed got more involved with SMSG he got a little bit of national publicity, he got his name in Time Magazine and so on. Begle: Yes, yes, yes. Roberts: How did he feel about that? Begle: A little uncomfortable. He was never out for glory. But I saved a copy of the Time magazine. But Ed never played to the galleries, he was always hisown self, and that was not always the politically smart move. He never could get down to the level of politicians. I would be the one who would be wagging my tongue and trying to be nice. Roberts: And of course Ed did receive some criticism, too. How did he react to that? Begle: It ate at him, but he didn't talk about it much. Did you, one person who could tell you all about Ed at Yale is his secretary there, Phyllis Stevens.She's still, oh, she's wonderful. Roberts: Where is she? Begle: Her name is Mrs. John Stevens, and her address I think is 484 Denslow Hill Road in Hamden. She was the secretary for the math department. Ed hired herto be his secretary for SMSG and she was absolutely wonderful. In fact I was East for Christmas, and Phyllis and her husband came up to my daughter Elsie's house. She's retired now, very, Edthought she was so smart. She was really typical of New Haven Italian as far as her family was concerned, but she was Ed's secretary. And then they kept her on as secretary of the mathdepartment. She was the sort of the executive secretary of the math department. Roberts: But she stayed on at Yale after Ed left. Begle: Yeah, and she knows SMSG backwards and forwards. In fact, when I saw her at Elsie's she was laughing and saying the things she did for Ed, he wouldcome in and say, "I need a babysitter, Elsie's out of town, can't get a babysitter." So he would pick her up and she would go out and babysit. But she was devoted to him. And Chester Kerr, whowas the editor of the Yale Press, was an admirer of Ed's. They were both fellows of Berkeley College and I think Chester was involved in OWI or something secret in World War II. But he becamethe editor of the Yale Press, and they published all the SMSG books. And perhaps you don't know this, but when Ed was appointed to be director of this School Mathematics Study Group to writetextbooks, the publishers had a collective heart attack. Because they could see government-published textbooks. And in fact, one of those publishers, who lives here in Palo Alto, StuartBrewster, who was with Addison Wesley, if you ever wanted to talk to him. So anyway, they had a big weekend conference at the Westchester Country Club in 1959, it was just when SMSG was gettingoff the ground. And he was, the publishers were having conniptions because this was government printing of textbooks. So he calmed them down by saying to them that what SMSG was doing wasproducing sample textbooks, and they would never be published in hardcover. They were not meant to be a national curriculum, but as examples of what. Many of the people who worked on SMSG wrotesuccessful textbooks, but SMSG books were never in hardcover. And Chester Kerr, the editor of the Yale Press, was very cooperative and they published all of the SMSG texts, but always just asa... Roberts: So I guess the idea was then that the commercial publishers would then take the SMSG, they could look at the SMSG texts . . . Begle: They could look at them and they hired some of the SMSG writers, in fact Stuart Brewster hired I think one or two of the SMSG writers permanently. Tobe on SMSG was an invitation to get an offer from commercial publishers to write texts. And that was fine with Ed. Roberts: It was, okay. So did he think that some of these commercial texts that were inspired by SMSG were pretty good? Begle: I never heard him say. I think probably on the whole they were an improvement god knows. Roberts: You had brought out Ed's book here, The Mathematics of the Elementary School [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975]. Begle: Right. You can take that if you want. Roberts: Okay, now when was this? Begle: That was, because he discovered that the teaching of math in the elementary schools was where it all went off the track, from the beginning. Roberts: This was 1975. Begle: Because even, I think he found that in SMSG the most he could accomplish was at the junior high level, and then at the senior high, although it wasnot, I mean he wanted to get every child an opportunity mathematically. And so he thought that you have to start with the elementary school, and elementary school teachers don't know anythingabout mathematics. I remember when Sally who really went to Kent, got a D in math in junior high at North Haven. And I was so appalled I went to see her teacher. Well, the teacher was just, theNew Haven schools are largely taught by Catholic teachers who come from New Haven State Teachers, and she said, "Well she doesn't contribute to the class." And she sat there clicking her worrybeads the whole time she was talking to me. And I almost said, "Take those goddamned beads." So at that point Ed said we should send her to, he said I'll talk to Ed Rourke about sending her toKent. So she went to Kent and got a wonderful education. Roberts: Now I'd like to go through a short list of mathematical educators, all now deceased, who had interacted with Ed in some way I believe. And if youknow anything about Ed's relationship with them or his opinion of them. Begle: Well I may not know all of them. Roberts: The first one is Max Beberman. Begle: Well that was a love/hate relationship. Max Beberman was in Illinois. Roberts: That's right. Begle: And he had his program, and I don't know. Ed was, I won't say he was a diplomat, but he was non-combative and he would rather, but that threw peopleoff because he wouldn't argue, so they felt intimidated by him, which was perhaps worse. But I can't, I only met Max Beberman once or twice, but I know he had his program and I can't make anyqualitative statements because Ed would not have engaged in discussions with me of any mathematician's abilities. Maybe a personal characteristic. Roberts: Robert Davis, Bob Davis. Begle: Bob Davis. I know the name and where was he? Roberts: He was for a while at Syracuse, I believe. Begle: Yeah, I know the name, but I don't have any remembrance. Roberts: How about a person that was here at Stanford for a while, was George Polya? Begle: Oh yes. Polya, now Ed was a great admirer of Polya, but Polya was not a great admirer of SMSG. I think Polya was a European, so although he wrote awonderful book, which Ed had I know at least two of my daughters read. He was an admirer of Polya but it wasn't reciprocated. Roberts: And now for the final one, was a very strong critic of the "new math" in general, Morris Kline? Begle: Oh yes, he was a terrible thorn in Ed's side. I never met him, so I can't say I had any personal, but I know that he gave Ed an awful lot of grief.And somewhere I have a tape, but I don't know if I can put my hands on it, to give you of a radio program which Ed was interviewed about Morris Kline. No, Morris Kline was a, well Henry Pollakmight be able to tell you about Morris Kline. Roberts: I've talked to Henry Pollak. I had an interview with him several months ago, and he did make some remarks about Morris Kline. Begle: But I wasn't involved. Ed would not have, well, he did, he did spout about Morris Kline, but not knowing him, and I do remember this, if I find thattape. Unfortunately you should have come a year ago when I lived in a fairly big house and had a lot of things. And I don't know where a lot of things, where books and things are instorage. Roberts: Well, are there any other of Ed's colleagues or students that you have special recollections of, or to whom you'd like to draw my attention. Begle: Well, Ed had two students who went to the University of Georgia, Athens. Jeremy Kilpatrick and.... Roberts: Jim Wilson? Begle: Yeah. Roberts: I'll be talking to them next month. Begle: Yeah, and they're both wonderful, particularly Jeremy, perhaps that's because I'm closer to Cardel, his wife, who was the mayor of Athens and is veryinvolved. Jim Wilson's wife was more boring. Oh dear, I shouldn't say that. But generally, no, they were both stalwarts. Roberts: Now, there's a man at Wisconsin, Romberg, was he a student? Begle: Who? Roberts: Tom Romberg. Begle: Oh, Tom Romberg, yes. He was a student of Ed's and got a PhD here. But I sort of lost track of him. I haven't heard from them in some time. He and hiswife Martha were students. Roberts: And there was another man, I'm not sure if he was a student of Ed's, Ed Silver? Begle: That doesn't ring a bell. Ed Silver? Doesn't ring a bell. But Bill Chinn, have you met him? Roberts: No, I've just corresponded with him... Begle: Well, he is full of much more mathematical knowledge than I, and he was a great friend, still is. And his wife died about a year ago, and he's beenvery, I mean he has one son who's in Evanston and a daughter who lives in San Francisco, but Doug and I went to his wife's funeral. Have you ever been to a Chinese funeral? Roberts: No, I haven't. Begle: It is very, people get up and talk a lot, sort of like the Quakers I guess. The coffin is open and everybody is expected to go up and pay theirrespects to the coffin. But anyway, Bill is a sweet, sweet guy, and was a stalwart and he was in the Army Meteorological Corps during World War II and he was stationed in god knows what remoteplaces, but anyway, he has a house that is chock-a-block with all sorts of books and manuscripts.