We hear a lot about big data, from the National Security Agency’s massive collection of phone data, to the breach in Target’s security, to the algorithms that Netflix uses to recommend entertainment. Understandably, we are concerned about the ethical uses of this data and the extent to which we are giving away our privacy to corporations and malfeasants.
But we also have a problem with “little data”—with our ability to use numbers in our everyday lives to make decisions, improve our lives and walk in solidarity with others. For many of us, the use of numbers evokes a haze of incomprehension, even anxiety. But quantitative literacy—the habit of using numbers to understand and solve problems—is a skill that we can all develop. We don’t have to be math majors to use numbers. We can empower ourselves and others with mathematical concepts learned in middle school: percentages, averages, basic probability. The trick is to recognize and use mathematics even when we don’t expect it. And it starts in the work we do everyday, in the classroom, in our offices, and in our interactions with others.
I teach history, a subject that many people don’t associate with numbers (other than dates). But there are a lot of ways that a history class, and other humanities courses, can integrate quantitative thinking. And many of these quantitative issues are actually issues of justice. Here are a few examples:
- What is the history of the idea of poverty? How was the “poverty line” established, and what measures have been taken into account when assessing the percentage of Americans living in poverty? What has been left out? How has the calculation of poverty changed over time, and with what implications? What is at stake in getting the definition of poverty right?
- What is the history of education—including the teaching of mathematical thinking? When did primary schooling become state policy? What debates have occurred over the centuries about the education of women and of formerly enslaved people? How has access to higher education changed?
- How should we react when a statistically significant finding appears to confirm (or refute) stereotypes? What is the difference between a statistically significant difference and a stereotype?
- How has the average life expectancy changed over time? How have people calculated that number? How does it vary by country, sex, city? How has infant mortality changed? Why did people start to think it was important to keep track of these statistics?
- How much energy is expended per capita? How has that use of energy changed over time? What sources of energy have been used, and how has that energy been extracted? Who has had access to energy, and who has been left out?
The answers to these questions require a combination of both quantitative thinking and humanistic thinking. Students sometimes wonder why they are taking humanities courses—and history majors often have to defend their choice of study. Here are some ways that the humanities can help promote justice:
- Humanists possess strong communication skills. They read and listen carefully to comprehend the text and the subtext. In a group setting, they listen to others. They report their findings clearly and effectively.
- Humanists can analyze an event from multiple perspectives, articulate multiple outcomes of the same cause, and explain how events develop in a dynamic and interconnected process. They also appreciate the importance of contingency in the unfolding of events.
- Humanists develop a broad frame of reference that can encompass a lifetime, a century, a millennium or even millions of years. They can think in terms of millions of people and many thousands of villages, towns and institutions.
- Humanists are accustomed to evaluating the processes by which answers are derived. The look for patterns and evaluate evidence. If the process for making decisions is wrong, justice will not be served.
- Humanists can interpret findings and articulate their implications. Humanists imaginatively enter into a variety of situations and therefore broaden their ability to interpret calculations and make recommendations. The humanities expand empathy, broaden one’s frame of references, engage in ethics, and provide a range of human experiences with risk and payoff.
Justice requires the rigorous examination of the past—and numbers to back it up. Swedish mathematician Andrejs Dunkels once wrote, “It’s easy to lie with statistics, but it’s hard to tell the truth without them.” We need quantitative literacy in order to help us understand the truth. But we need the humanities to cultivate our judgment.
Rachel Chrastil is the Center for Teaching Excellence Faculty Fellow and the author of a resource for integrating quantitative literacy into humanities courses. She is Associate Professor of History and the author of The Siege of Strasbourg.