A Scientific Approach ... to the Humanities

Article excerpt

If you ask Francis Oakley, former president of Williams College and noted medieval scholar, what is needed to improve higher education, he'll tell you that professors in the humanities must learn to count.

No, Dr. Oakley doesn't have problems balancing his checkbook. What he's talking about is the emerging quest among such historically number-challenged disciplines as English, philosophy, history, sociology, and the arts to "quantify the humanities."

How much time do history professors spend researching arcane academic papers - compared to the time they spend teaching? How many humanities students and courses are there, anyway?

It's not that inquiring minds are desperate to know the minutiae of the humanities for their own sake. But such tallies are critical to budget and policy debates that could ultimately determine whether long-held core disciplines remain vibrant sectors of American higher education or become intellectual backwaters, Oakley and others say.

When it comes time to allocate resources, college administrators generally can count on the science disciplines to provide carefully collected national-trend data to back up requests for faculty positions. Chairmen in humanities departments, however, often end up twiddling their thumbs and hoping for the best. The data just aren't there.

Leslie Berlowitz wants to change that. As executive officer of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) in Cambridge, Mass., she is pushing other humanities organizations and individual professors to collect more and better data. The AAAS took up the challenge in 1998 to create a coherent "humanities database" out of the flotsam of data currently available.

"To really understand what's happening to any discipline it's helpful to understand trends and numbers to see if things have alarmingly changed," she says. "There is already a lot of planning data for science and engineering and health. Notably absent are the humanities."

Robert Solow, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist and Nobel Laureate, could not agree more. He helped pioneer "Science and Engineering Indicators," the biennial 1,200-plus page bible of the nation's science disciplines that quantifies everything from trends in graduate enrollment by discipline to growth rates in the agricultural sciences.

Indicators for the humanities

Even though his field of study is a league distant from the humanities, Dr. Solow has strongly supported the fledgling move to develop a set of humanities indicators akin to those he helped create for the sciences.

"The humanities community knows deplorably little about what is taught to whom and by whom, how long it takes, where graduates and postgraduates go, what they do when they get there, and how many of them there are," Solow says.

Tracking numbers is not only important for waging budget battles on campus; it's also handy to have them in reserve when critics take potshots at the quality of humanities instruction. Just ask Oakley.

"Having got caught up in the battle of the books in the 1980s, it hit me how little concrete data we had in the humanistic disciplines," Oakley says, referring to the debates over what should be required reading in college.

Awash in 'The Color Purple'?

He recalls that during the culture wars of the late 1980s and early '90s, one war-horse anecdote was frequently trotted out by critics and attributed to an English department chairman.

That chairman had off-handedly suggested to an interviewer that Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" was taught in more English courses today than were all of Shakespeare's plays combined. …