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
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
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
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. …