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Quantitative Literacy and the Humanities

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What is Quantitative Literacy?

Quantitative literacy applies to questions in daily life and helps us to understand the workings of the world.  It shores up our democracy and safegaurds liberty.  The questions are subtle and the stakes are high. 

Dr. Uri Treisman has defined QL as a deep understanding of middle school mathematics that can be applied in unfamiliar situations in everyday life.  QL supports complex decision-making, yet the mathematical skills that can support these decisions—ratios, averages, straight line graphs—were first learned in middle school.  QL is analogous to literacy: we learn the basics at an early age, but the thinking we can do with those basics grows more sophisticated.  But just how should we think about QL in relation to other ways of thinking?

It is useful to think of QL not as a separate discipline, but as an aspect of rational thinking--a habit of mind in which we base our beliefs, goals and actions on evidence and logic.  Rational thinking helps us to avoid cognitive biases such as closed mindedness, hindsight bias or "myside" bias.  Fostering QL is a salvo against irrationality. 

Another way to think about QL is the intersection between mathematics, English composition, and disciplines such as history, literature and philosophy.  Those of us who teach in the humanities know our disciplines well and have long taught writing as an integral part of our courses.  Now it is time to intentionally integrate quantitative analysis.

But just what kinds of mathematics should we teach in humanities courses?  What does it mean to apply it to
unfamiliar situations?  What attitudes or habits of mind will foster QL?  How can we assess our students’ QL?  We need to examine the Attitudes, Actions, and Concepts that undergird QL.
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