The Hegemony of Numbers

Over the past decade our so, the US Department of Education increasingly has emphasized the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in both word and deed.  (I think this trend started under the Bush administration and Secretary Spelling, but the Obama administration has definitely continued the push.)  Meanwhile, social science academics push for quantifiable research over case studies and theory more than ever; at Cal, Poli Sci almost-ABDs are told to revise prospectuses over and over again in search of the perfect statistical models.

This, in and of itself, would not be so bad, if it weren’t for the fact that this new fashion emphasizes quantifiable phenomena at the expense of more obtuse fields.  Sure, STEM fields are important, but it is completely false to claim that they’re more important to individuals’ well-being than the humanities, arts, social sciences, and physical education.

So: why this trendy hegemony of numbers?  Why is it that our nations’ norm-setters continually exalt the hard sciences over other fields, despite the fact that most of them didn’t actually love the hard sciences enough to specialize in them?  Why is it that the US simultaneously recognizes its hegemony, which couldn’t just be a lucky accident, and yet bends over backwards to adopt the priorities of less democratic, more socially-stratified nations, which it often denigrates as backwards?

Again, today I have a lot more questions than answers, but here are some hypotheses:

1. Because numbers are easy.

2+2=4.  No argument.  Despite the fact that math is an absolutely incredible way to make insanely abstract ideas concrete, we soon learn that two plus two IS four, and that’s that.  In the math that nearly all non-mathmeticians study, ideas are quite black-and-white.

Numbers are easily quantifiable.  (Is that like saying “giants are tall?”)  Basically, we find the limits of something (wow calculus flashbacks) and then feel like we can have a rational basis for deciding how much we value that phenomenon.

See?  Even in those two sentences, there are math words all over the place: “numbers,” “quantifiable,” “limits,” “rational,” “value.”  The concept of “worth” is inextricably tied up with quantity.

The problem is, a whole lot of the world has worth, but is not quantifiable — or, at least, we haven’t found a good system through which to quantify said worth.  For example, I love my boyfriend; how do I measure that love?  Or, I think I have a pretty good intellect; how do I measure that intellect?  (Here, we have many ways to do so, but IQ tests, standardizes tests, traditional A-F grading, etc. are all highly controversial, and nobody argues that one test represents the sum of the whole.)

To draw an example from the hard sciences, we actually don’t even have one good way to measure health!  Age doesn’t account for mental health.  Height doesn’t account for heart health.  Blood pressure doesn’t always correlate with blood sugar.  Hell, even BMI is highly suspect, as muscle weighs more than fat.

2. Because numbers are concrete.

Or, at least, when used in everyday life, they measure something concrete.  How many pairs of jeans do I have?  (Nine.)  How many books are in my apartment?  (About 250.)  What is my net worth?  (Negative ten grand.)  But wait, am I supposed to count intellectual/potential capital in my net worth?  Oops, I already ran into trouble with that whole concrete thing.

Why do we want something concrete?  Because, in times of national security, our rhetoric grasps at anything deemed knowable.  I don’t think it’s any mere coincidence that our STEM resurgence began right after 9/11.  After all, we freely acknowledge that, sixty years ago, the US started re-emphasizing STEM under the perceived threat of communism and the USSR.  Today, STEM-supporting rhetoric constantly invokes (and conflates) national security and economic prowess.

In times of uncertainty, quantifiable phenomena seem more concrete, and thus are reassuring.  Basically, I’m saying that STEM, despite its cold, forbidding connotations, actually is a big, cuddly teddy bear.  Yup.

3. Because we’re nervous.

International-relations-speaking, the United States came into its own through World War II, basically was the world hegemon throughout the Cold War (you might argue it shared this position with the USSR, but who flourished? yeah, that’s right, Reds), and was an indisputable hegemon once the physical and proverbial Walls/Curtains fell.

That said, since the USSR broke apart, we’ve constantly been on the lookout for the next world leaders, often completely overestimating their power and prematurely declaring them hegemon.  Specifically, we’re scared to death of China and India [proving yet again that we’re more scared of pure numbers (in these cases, population) and less concerned with all the intangibles that hold both states back, diplomatically].

In fact, we’re so damn scared of them that we — what?  Are attempting to adopt their methods?  Valuing STEM and rote learning because that’s what these developing nations value?

Pardon me for thinking, rather politically incorrectly, that that’s ABSOLUTELY FUCKING RETARDED.  Oh hey, we’re world leaders, everybody wants to be like us, oh shit, somebody else might be more powerful someday, why don’t I ABANDON THE BETTER PRACTICES THAT ENABLE MY POLITICAL, CULTURAL, AND ECONOMIC LEADERSHIP AND ADOPT THOSE OF LESSER DEMOCRACIES AND SEMI-AUTOCRACIES.  That seems like a great fucking idea.  Super logical.

All sarcasm aside, rote learning, memorization, and focus on purely technical skills are the absolute opposites of true innovation and scientific progress.  Euclid, Pythagoras, Al-Khwarizmi, Copernicus, Galileo, Colt, Newton, Whitney, Einstein, Hewlett, Packard, Gates, and Jobs, DID NOT PRODUCE WHAT THEY DID BY MEEKLY ACCEPTING FORMULAS AND ONLY LEARNING PURELY TECHNICAL APPLICATIONS.  Their innovations, and all others, were products of questioning, seeking, and expanding beyond what was already known.  Rote learning and narrow technical learning are only the tip of the iceberg of scientific inquiry.*

China, India and similarly-situated countries actually recognize this implicitly by sending the majority of its leaders to university in the western world.  As much as we bemoan the state of American K-12 education, the world still seems to value American university-trained thinkers and leaders.  Families, organizations, and states must go to all that effort, and spend all that money (have you looked at international tuition at our colleges?  they have to be pretty gifted, or loaded, or both) because our higher education has proven to forge the best leaders.  How are American universities different from others?  They, nearly alone, emphasize a liberal arts education in the form of general education requirements, even if one goes to a polytechnic research university.

On the micro scale, my mom grew up in authoritarian Taiwan, and her education consisted of memorization, note-taking, and never talking except to ask purely factual questions.  She got another BA here, at Cal State Long Beach, and was blown away by the level of participation, and, frankly, a little disturbed at students’ willingness to stand up to their teachers.  Later on, throughout my education, she continually was amazed and a little star-struck at the quality of my education, and frequently mused that such Socratic learning really did develop much stronger individuals and a generally better society.  (She also continually whines that Americans are selfish, dumb, and generally heathens, but I’m suspicious it’s mostly talk, since she always seems glad to be back here after a trip home.)

Rote learning and passivity create no true leaders but tyrants, and, throughout human civilization, have lost in the long run.  Focusing on pure numbers, without examining the abstract concepts behind them, while ignoring all the as-yet-quantifiable phenomena in this world and beyond, is truly an enemy of democracy.

*Mild tangent: Proof?  Chevron is based near my home town, and every fourth Moraga dad was some sort of fairly important mucky-muck there.  Most of them were now in mid- to upper-level positions, and the vast majority were formally trained engineers.  HOWEVER, it was/is nearly impossible to move up in your career there unless you go back to school and get an MBA.  That’s right, a non-engineering degree.  Technical knowledge, in and of itself, is simply not going to get you much farther than surface-level tasks and problems, until you couple said knowledge with broader human and intellectual leadership.


1. How should we educate our citizenry?  I proposed (propose? living document?) a broad curriculum, designed to maximize democracy, in this post:

2. Enjoy the constant use of “hegemon?”  How do you know I studied political science?  Oh, because my Safari spellchecker thinks “hegemon” isn’t a word.  Just keep underlining, Safari.  I’ll show you.

3. I also just got my Amazon shipment, which, in addition to Garfield Minus Garfield (yess!!!), brought me Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.  I suspect that book will complement my thinking explicated in this post and the one I linked above, and that I’ll probably soon have a follow-up on this theme.  STAY TUNED.

4. For the record, I wrote this while watching the Cubs game, basking in the sun on my balcony.  You don’t need to imagine me sitting in a dark closet, alone, frantically typing with my nose to the keyboard on a beautiful summer Sunday afternoon.

5. Awesome math column, with a great Sesame Street clip:


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