How data analysis can enrich the liberal arts

The Economist: “…The arts can indeed seem as if they are under threat. Australia’s education ministry is doubling fees for history and philosophy while cutting those for stem subjects. Since 2017 America’s Republican Party has tried to close down the National Endowment for the Humanities (neh), a federal agency, only to be thwarted in Congress. In Britain, Dominic Cummings—who until November 2020 worked as the chief adviser to Boris Johnson, the prime minister—advocates for greater numeracy while decrying the prominence of bluffing “Oxbridge humanities graduates”. (Both men studied arts subjects at Oxford.)

However, little evidence yet exists that the burgeoning field of digital humanities is bankrupting the world of ink-stained books. Since the neh set up an office for the discipline in 2008, it has received just $60m of its $1.6bn kitty. Indeed, reuniting the humanities with sciences might protect their future. Dame Marina Warner, president of the Royal Society of Literature in London, points out that part of the problem is that “we’ve driven a great barrier” between the arts and stem subjects. This separation risks portraying the humanities as a trivial pursuit, rather than a necessary complement to scientific learning.

Until comparatively recently, no such division existed. Omar Khayyam wrote verse and cubic equations, Ada Lovelace believed science was poetical and Bertrand Russell won the Nobel prize for literature. In that tradition, Dame Marina proposes that all undergraduates take at least one course in both humanities and sciences, ideally with a language and computing. Introducing such a system in Britain would be “a cause for optimism”, she thinks. Most American universities already offer that breadth, which may explain why quantitative literary criticism thrived there. The sciences could benefit, too. Studies of junior doctors in America have found that those who engage with the arts score higher on tests of empathy.

Ms McGillivray says she has witnessed a “generational shift” since she was an undergraduate in the late 1990s. Mixing her love of mathematics and classics was not an option, so she spent seven years getting degrees in both. Now she sees lots of humanities students “who are really keen to learn about programming and statistics”. A recent paper she co-wrote suggested that British arts courses could offer basic coding lessons. One day, she reckons, “It’s going to happen…(More)”.