Within a longer look at the fate of the humanities, one Harvard student suggests statistics dominates campus conversations:
I asked Haimo whether there seemed to be a dominant vernacular at Harvard. (When I was a student there, people talked a lot about things being “reified.”) Haimo told me that there was: the language of statistics. One of the leading courses at Harvard now is introductory statistics, enrolling some seven hundred students a semester, up from ninety in 2005. “Even if I’m in the humanities, and giving my impression of something, somebody might point out to me, ‘Well, who was your sample? How are you gathering your data?’ ” he said. “I mean, statistics is everywhere. It’s part of any good critical analysis of things.”
It struck me that I knew at once what Haimo meant: on social media, and in the press that sends data visualizations skittering across it, statistics is now everywhere, our language for exchanging knowledge. Today, a quantitative idea of rigor underlies even a lot of arguments about the humanities’ special value. Last school year, Spencer Glassman, a history major, argued in a column for the student paper that Harvard’s humanities “need to be more rigorous,” because they set no standards comparable to the “tangible things that any student who completes Stat 110 or Physics 16 must know.” He told me, “One could easily walk away with an A or A-minus and not have learned anything. All the STEM concentrators have this attitude that humanities are a joke.”…
Haimo and I turned back toward Harvard Square. “I think the problem for the humanities is you can feel like you’re not really going anywhere, and that’s very scary,” he said. “You write one essay better than the other from one semester to the next. That’s not the same as, you know, being able to solve this economics problem, or code this thing, or do policy analysis.” This has always been true, but students now recognized less of the long-term value of writing better or thinking more deeply than they previously had. Last summer, Haimo worked at the HistoryMakers, an organization building an archive of African American oral history. He said, “When I was applying, I kept thinking, What qualifies me for this job? Sure, I can research, I can write things.” He leaned forward to check for passing traffic. “But those skills are very difficult to demonstrate, and it’s frankly not what the world at large seems in demand of.”
I suspect this level of authority is not just true on a college campus: numbers have a particular power in the world today. They convey proof. Patterns and trends. There can often be little space to ask where the numbers came from or what they mean.
Is this the only way to understand the world? No. We need to consider all sorts of data to understand and explain what is going on. Stories and narratives do not just exist to flesh out quantitative patterns; they can convey deep truths and raise important questions.
But what if we only care today about what is most efficient and most able to directly translate into money? If college students and others prioritize jobs over everything else, does this advantage numbers and their connections to STEM and certain occupations that are the only ways or perceived certain ways to wealth and a return on investment? From later in the article:
In a quantitative society for which optimization—getting the most output from your input—has become a self-evident good, universities prize actions that shift numbers, and pre-professionalism lends itself to traceable change.
If American society prizes money and a certain kind of success above all else, are these patterns that surprising?
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