The Yale Chalkboard Rebellion of 1830
By Anna Green
When a new teaching device—the chalkboard—arrived at Yale University in the 1820s, it didn’t receive an especially warm welcome. In fact, it actually incited a rebellion.
What is now seen as a taken-for-granted classroom staple was once the object of intense controversy because it changed the way students were expected to learn mathematics. Students at Yale in the 1820s were accustomed to using their textbook as a reference when they solved problems. According to Smithsonian, the introduction of the chalkboard meant that they were suddenly expected to solve problems at the board, without the help of their books.
The scholars did not embrace the new challenge. Instead, they complained that it was unfair, especially when applied to a particularly tough section of their geometry curriculum: conic sections. And so, in 1825, the Yalies launched the first “conic sections rebellion,” insisting that the old teaching style be restored, their textbooks returned, and the blackboard reserved for less complex material.
Out of a sophomore class of 87 students, 38 refused to solve problems at the board, and were suspended. It wasn't long, though, before the rebellious students backed down, succumbing to faculty and parental pressure and signing a formal apology, which read:
We, the undersigned, having been led into a course of opposition to the government of Yale College, do acknowledge our fault in this resistance, and promise, on being restored to our standing in the class, to yield a faithful obedience to the laws.
But that wasn’t the end of the battle. Five years later, in 1830, a second “conic sections rebellion” was launched by 43 Yale students—among them future physician Alfred Stille—who refused to take their math exam. This time, the students refused to give up, but the university wasn’t about to let the students win: After negotiations failed, the school expelled all 43 students, ending the great rebellion in one fell swoop.
And those weren't the only moments of discontent on campus. The 1820s and ‘30s were tumultuous years for Yale University. In addition to the 1825 and 1830 “conic sections rebellions,” students in 1827 also launched a “great bread and butter rebellion,” against the quality of food served in the cafeteria. One college historian writing in the 1870s called it “an uprising against the authorities of the college that for persistency and violence, and the numbers engaged in it, has, we believe, no parallel in the history of American colleges.”