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Quantitative Literacy and the Humanities

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Quantitative Literacy in the Humanities Classroom

The humanities classroom entwines with QL in a variety of ways.

Forming citizens

In our daily lives, we are frequently asked to interpret data, evaluate risk, develop policies, weigh trade-offs, and predict the future.  We read reports generated by the media, the government, and our workplace, and we must learn how to read and interpret them.  We want to help our students take control of their personal choices, find rewarding jobs, and contribute intelligently to our democratic society.  Humanities classrooms can be a venue through which to examine questions related to daily life, a place for us and our students to work through practical issues. 

  • Will bonuses to teachers improve student learning?
  • Which polls are the best predictors of the election results?
  • How can we reduce crime in my city?
  • If I test positive for cancer, what is the likelihood that I actually have the disease?
  • Which dangers are worth devoting time and energy to prevent?
  • How should my business handle budget reductions?
  • Is my rent affordable?
  • Should I take the advice of scientific studies regarding nutrition and exercise?

Historicizing numbers and QL

Many of the indicators and indices that we take for granted have a history with profound implications for today.  And the history of education--including of quantitatively literate citizens--reveals the high stakes of education for today's citizens.

  • The history of the informed citizenry: state-supported primary school, the education of women, the education of formerly enslaved people, access to higher education.  How has education policy changed?  How does it differ by state or region?  What is at stake in educational policy?
  • The history of election law and its relationship to the population: Why do we use the electoral college?  How did the 3/5 clause in the U.S. Constitution affect membership in Congress?  How did these decisions affect subsequent events?
  • The history of today's common indices and indicators, such as unemployment, wealth, infant mortality, population: when and how were they created?  How have they evolved over time?  What methods have been used to determine them?

Enhancing the humanities

The robust use of quantitative data helps us to answer questions in the humanities, and provokes new ones.  Some examples:

  • What new ethical questions arise when we use statistics that rely on data about personal characteristics—such as race, nationality or religion—in order to fight crime or stop terrorism?
  • 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 might we reconcile rhetoric about the deaths of “women and children” with the fact that a higher percentage of the dead are very often men?
  • What is the relationship between geometric forms and beauty?

Enhancing QL

The humanities foster many habits of mind that robust QL requires. 

  • Humanists possess strong communication skills.  They read and listen carefully to comprehend the text and the subtext.  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.  They are adept at adjusting their time frame to 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.  This broad perspective allows them to see relationships between two seemingly disconnected events.  
  • Humanists are accustomed to evaluating the processes by which answers are derived.  The look for patterns and evaluate evidence.
  • Humanists can interpret findings and articulate their implications.  The humanities allow us to imaginatively enter into a variety of situations, and therefore broaden our 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.
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