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Education: High Math at Hanover

3 minute read

Grants of a mere $500,000 are no longer unusual—although colleges still receive them gratefully—but one made last week by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to Dartmouth College is worth noting. The gift, which will pay for the mathematics half of a building for the mathematics and psychology departments, was made largely in recognition of the work of one 32-year-old professor. Says Dartmouth President John Sloan Dickey of his math department’s chairman, Hungarian-born John G. Kemeny: “A really great teacher; he has the ability to ignite a lot of fuel.”

Impressive Record. Teacher Kemeny, wearing an almost academic mustache on a face not yet fully professorial, went to Dartmouth from Princeton as a full professor five years ago. At 27 his record was already impressive; he got his bachelor’s degree at Princeton in 1947 with the highest grades seen there in 20 years, by 23 had his Ph.D., in spite of a year spent with the Army at Los Alamos. In 1948-49 he was Albert Einstein’s chief assistant at the Institute for Advanced Study.

At Dartmouth he began igniting fuel directly. He has replaced most members of a musty, retirement-age department—today 10 out of 13 Dartmouth math professors are Kemeny appointees—and installed a new curriculum, with strong emphasis on such modern mathematical fields as topology, abstract algebra and probability. Says he: “Mathematics is the only subject you can study for 14 years without learning anything that’s been done since 1800.” A favorite Kemeny lecture—which he gives with great success to high school students, as well as Dartmouth men—consists of leading his listeners through the invention of group theory, a fundamental branch of modern algebra, using only a blank piece of cardboard for his demonstrations.

Cornball Humor. In place of a single set of courses, progressively drier and more abstruse, which sifted the student body until one or two math majors were left, Kemeny set up course sequences for liberal arts students, engineers and mathematicians, created an elite group among the math majors. To students in the top 10% of each incoming freshman class he sends letters asking if they will join in a stiff honors course. The survivors, four years later, have chewed their way through enough mathematics to earn them a master’s degree at most good graduate schools.

Kemeny has no patience with teachers who shirk research, or with scholars who scorn the teaching of freshmen. He tries to set aside one day a week for research, wants his professors to do the same. His humor is likely to be cornball, his demonstrations chatty: “When you get this far, if you are a normal human being, you get stuck. Now the creative process does not consist in sitting down and in one evening having all the good ideas you are ever going to have …” To his students, Kemeny is something of a pi’d piper; to his colleagues he is distinctly unsettling. Said one recently: “He knows the questions to ask to point out the difficult facet, and the way he explains things, I say to myself, ‘Damn, why didn’t I think of that?’ “

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