by James Bailey |

We cannot get beyond STEM until we give up our obeisance to the individual number: the 980, the 2.718, the 3.14 and all that. These single values (sic) have proven their worth in the parts of reality that are dead, but are out of their league in the sciences of life. No matter. Radical STEMinists will give up their constants when they are pried from their cold dead hands. In previous posts we have noted the quasi-religious overtones of arithmetic and algebra; that they are believed to somehow be a window into the mind of an otherwise inscrutable God. The Puritans of colonial Harvard certainly had no doubts.


The true and genuine method of philosophizing is that all conclusions are drawn from Scripture, reason, and sense."


The 21st-century STEMinists of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM)  elide the Scripture but otherwise carry on unchanged with their mantra of "reasoning and sense making."

Until recently, the English department has had a similar devotion to the individual word and the individual sentence, usually under the rubric of "close reading." It was an article of faith that there was more meaning looking behind the words themselves. Unlike the STEMinists, who uniformly see the sacred as lurking behind the numbers, however, students of literature could not agree on exactly what that extra meaning entailed. They are therefore potentially open to the alternative that the meaning, at least some of it, is floating way above those individual words, sentences, and even paragraphs. New meaning is to be found across millions of words, embodied in thousands of texts, and only accessible to computer programs.

In its genial and erudite way the new Canon/Archive book edited by Franco Moretti makes this case. Spanning the full range of 19th century British novels, it graphs the way the characters of these books, early in the century, had passions. Those at the end had moods. Those at the beginning SHOUTED and whispered. Those at the end mostly "said." Those at the beginning exhibited abstract notions of virtue. Those at the end spoke of much more concrete realities.

Once exposed to these new levels of insight, it is hard to go back to the word by word way of doing literature. And perhaps hard to remain satisfied with the number by number narrowness of the STEM curriculum.


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