Despite the fact that there always seems to be a moment of crisis for something, the strength of this article, other than providing an excellent viewpoint, is the reading list at the end.
If democracy depends on informed citizens, democracy is in trouble. This is a moment of crisis for many institutions, including higher education, especially in disciplines such as English, philosophy, and history, which promise to prepare students as citizens. To prepare students for a world where information is filtered by computers, we will need a stronger alliance between the humanities and math. This alliance has two reciprocal parts: cultural criticism of the mathematical models shaping our world, and mathematical inquiry about culture.
Traditional humanistic skills remain important, of course: we still need to scrutinize assumptions and evaluate arguments. But the challenges that confront 21st-century citizens are not always arguments that come one by one to be evaluated. Information is more likely to come in cascades, guided both by networks of friends and by statistical models that anticipate our preferences. Evaluating sources one by one won’t necessarily tell us whether these computational and social systems are giving us a biased picture. Instead, we need to think about samples and models—in other words, about math. Mathematics may once have seemed a specialized scientific tool. But in the 21st century, culture and politics are increasingly pervaded by the automated form of statistical inference called “machine learning.” Students who don’t understand it will struggle to understand everyday life.
Reading articles such often makes me wonder what life will be like for the children chronically absent from school (6600 in Newfoundland and Labrador) and those who suffer from PEI’s shocking literacy rates. It’s not even about participating in a global economy anymore, it’s about understanding the world around them.