Give A Dog A Bad Name – Johann Georg Büttner

There’s a story I tell whenever I get the opportunity. You must know it too. It’s the story of how the young Carl Friedrich Gauss, who in 1785 or so was aged about eight, was set the task of adding the whole numbers from 1 to 100.   Rather than adding each number in turn, he promptly wrote the answer on his slate and placed it on the teacher’s desk.

It’s a great story, and it offers probably the only piece of genius mathematics which we can all grasp.   I’ll invite children – and indeed teachers – to consider how he might have been able to give the answer so quickly.   He never did explain his method, but presumably recognised that you can take the highest and lowest numbers, 1 and 100, and add them to make 101. Then the next highest and the next lowest, 99 and 2, making 101 again, and so on.   Then all he had to do was notice that there will be 50 pairs totalling 101, so giving a total of 101×50, equalling 5050.

One of the things I love about this is the immense power it gives us. We’re not restricted to adding the integers from 1 to 100; adding the whole numbers from 1 to 1000 is little more work. Your set of numbers doesn’t have to start with 1, and as long as they increase by the same amount each time they don’t have to be whole numbers either. Once you’ve understood the method you can find the total of sets which include fractions, decimals, and negatives – there’s a formula you can use for summing such series, but learning it becomes wholly redundant.

Another reason the story’s so popular is its great human interest and it’s been told time and time again; there’s a website with well over a hundred versions (http://bit-player.org/wp-content/extras/gaussfiles/gauss-snippets.html ). Many of them are very fanciful, but it’s easy to pull out the basis – the task itself, the little boy, and the school-master Johann Georg Büttner.

Many of the versions have incorporated details which are distinctly fanciful – that Büttner was idle, or a sadistic bully, who was scornful and disbelieving of his young pupil. Often there’s a David and Goliath slant – the ingenious pupil defeating the hulking teacher. Now in the last couple of years I’ve done a large amount of reading about mathematics teaching and I’d like to offer a different interpretation which I think is far more accurate.

It’s lucky Gauss was born in Germany. If he’d been English it’s likely the world would never have heard of him. It’s frequently said England was the worst educated country in Europe; in England it’s unlikely there would have been a school for him to go to, and there was no great desire from anyone to do much about it.   The church and the gentry didn’t want their peasants to be too well educated, and parents were happy to put their children out to work – most English eight-yearolds would already have been working and earning for a couple of years.

And where there was provision it was often scarcely deserving of being called a school, with the teacher someone looking to top up his main income, or an older person no longer able to earn a living in other ways. England was so slow developing an educational system that Gauss was middle-aged by the time the first tentative steps towards a national English system of schools were taken, and the first generation who’d studied and trained to be teachers didn’t emerge until he was an old man. Indeed, it’s scarcely believable, but when Gauss died in 1855 there were hundreds of English teachers who were illiterate and couldn’t sign their name to documents.

So Carl was indeed fortunate to have been born in one of the German states. Prussia, for example, had established teacher training programmes before 1750 (virtually a century before England), and had compulsory state education to 13 before 1800. In England attendance didn’t become compulsory until 1880 and it was only at the very end of the century that the leaving age was raised even to 11, and then 12. But even in 1898 attendance was still nowhere near 100% and there were still cases of 5 and 6-yearolds working 12 or 15 hours a week.

Far from being an ignorant oaf Büttner was a trained professional.   Rather than ridicule Carl’s achievement, he created an individual programme specially for him. His assistant Johann Martin Bartels lived on the same street as Carl, and Büttner arranged for him to give Gauss individual tuition. Bartels may well have been the most remarkable teaching assistant of all time – indeed, he became a university mathematics professor himself, numbering Lobachevsky among his students. His relationship with Gauss was so productive that they were still corresponding forty years later. What an amazing piece of good fortune that a tiny school should have such a tutor available!

The help Büttner and Bartels gave Carl didn’t end there. From his own purse Büttner bought Carl the best mathematics texts available, and he had the contacts to ensure that Carl’s education didn’t end at the elementary stage but continued into secondary school; from there he and Bartels arranged for the Duke of Brunswick to provide for a university fellowship which set him on the path to become the “Prince of mathematicians”.

Few of us will have the good fortune to number a genius among our pupils – the closest I’ve got is to have known Dick Tahta, who Stephen Hawking has always acknowledged as his inspiration. Johann Georg Büttner appreciated a pupil with exceptional ability, and deserves a far better reputation than he’s been given. He recognised and nurtured one of the greatest mathematical geniuses of all time and rather than traduce his memory all teachers should be proud of the example he set us nearly 250 years ago.

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3 responses

  1. It’s an interesting perspective, isn’t it, seeing how far we’ve come in 150 years.

    1. Absolutely. 150 years ago the Government decided they were spending too much money on education and schools were wasting it on airy-fairy trendy frippery like Geography and History. Hence the introduction of a stringent inspection and testing regime. Assessment was done focussing upon the narrowest curriculum (the Three Rs) and mechanical procedures. Schools were dependent for their very existence on their performance in the annual tests and might spend the six months previous by removing all other subjects from the timetable and sitting endless practice papers.

  2. Thank goodness nothing remotely like that happens now 😉

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