by Stephen Drew, Improbable Research staff
Mathematics teaching has been cocked up — well and properly and officially — for a good long while, thanks to Edward Cocker and his amply-titled textbook Cocker’s Arithmetick: Being a Plain and Familiar Method Suitable to the Meanest Capacity for the Full Understanding of That Incomparable Art, As It Is Now Taught by the Ablest School Masters in City and Country.
Published in 1667, and later reprinted in more than 100 editions, the book was a standard in British grammar schools for several generations. Foreign schoolteachers also took Cocker to their bosom.
A Man of Words, Word, and More Words, Plus More Words
The 34-word title exemplifies the book’s approach to explaining things clearly. One could (although the author would probably not) sum it up in three words: don’t be terse.
Here, for example, is how the book takes the student in hand — nearly in handcuffs, really — to explain the so- called “Rule of Three.” This passage appears on page 88 of the book’s 47th edition, published in the year 1736:
Observe, that of the three given numbers, those two that are of the same kind, one of them must be the first, and the other the third, and that which is of the same kind with the number sought, must be the second number in the rule of three; and that you may know which of the said numbers to make your first, and which your third, know this, that to one of those two numbers there is always affixed a demand, and that number upon which the demand lieth must always be reckoned the third number.
The book’s very first page accustoms the student to what lies ahead. You might enjoy reading this aloud:
Unit is number; for the part is of the same matter that is his whole, the unit is part of the multitude of units, therefore the unit is of the same matter, that is the multitude of units; but the matter of the multitude of units is number; therefore the matter of units is number; or else, if from a number given no number but subtracted, the number given remaineth; as suppose 3 the given number, if as some suppose, 1 be no number, then if you subtract 1 from 3, there must remain 3 still; which is very absurd.
Words After Death
Scholars now debate whether Edward Cocker actually wrote the book (the first edition was published nine years after his death). Some suggest the whole thing is just a pastiche of other people’s writings, issued by a greedy publisher. No matter. Like many of today’s textbooks, authorities deemed it authoritative, and it came to enjoy widespread use. In that respect, as perhaps in others, this antique textbook is a very 21st-century piece of work.
Cocker’s Arithmetick: Being a Plain and Familiar Method Suitable to the Meanest Capacity for the Full Understanding of That Incomparable Art, As It Is Now Taught by the Ablest School-Masters in City and Country, Edward Cocker, 1677, John Hawkins [publisher], London.
Cocker’s Life and productive death are the subject of an essay called “Who Was Cocker,” in the July 1884 issue of The Bibiliographer. You can read it online.
_____________________This article is republished with permission from the July-August 2010 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!
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