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The New Literacy

by Lynn Arthur Steen, St. Olaf College

Excerpted with permission from "Why Numbers Count: Quantitative Literacy for Tomorrow's America," Copyright (c) College Entrance Examination Board, 1997. All rights reserved.

Ever since computers opened the floodgates of the information age, we have been caught in a rising tide of numbers. The ascendancy of quantitative information has changed profoundly not only the environment in which we live and work, but also the entire framework of civic life. Headlines proclaim deficit projections and unemployment numbers, holiday deaths and political polls. Editorialists debate the impact of unemployment figures on stock market trends, the cost savings of managed health care, and the impact of estrogen supplements on breast cancer rates. Behind the scenes, the mechanisms of everyday life depend increasingly on digital technology--from cellular phones to ATM machines, from bar codes to the World Wide Web.

Like hundreds of other matters small and large that command our daily attention, these constructs of modern civilization depend at their deepest level on quantitative information. ... Numeracy is the new literacy of our age ...

As the printing press gave the power of letters to the masses, so the computer gives the power of numbers to ordinary citizens. The entire federal budget is on-line, available for down-loading and analysis by any person with access to a networked computer. So too are school board budgets, mutual fund values, and local used car prices. Every desktop computer includes spreadsheet software more powerful than programs available to professional accountants twenty years ago. No longer is the calculation of car loans or mortgage rates an esoteric specialty known only to bankers. Now all numerate citizens may determine for themselves the economic impact of their own decisions, and of the decisions their elected representatives are making on their behalf.

The relentless quantification of society continues unabated. The tendency to reduce complex information to a few numbers is overwhelming--in health care, in social policy, in political analysis, in education. ... Although the widespread availability of data should enrich public discourse, inevitable over-simplifications and misinterpretations may ultimately cheapen it. ... Instead of enhancing Jeffersonian democracy, limited numeracy can easily shift the balance to a technocracy.

Innumeracy hurts in other ways as well. For example, public policy issues may increasingly move beyond the intellectual grasp of citizens who lack appropriate skills in quantitative reasoning. Innumeracy encourages the view that all opinions are equally valid, that whenever there is disagreement the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Innumeracy thus becomes another means of disenfranchisement: by reinforcing the idea that truth is relative and unknowable, people with the least defenses against charlatans will be most vulnerable.

Innumeracy also perpetuates welfare, harms health, and weakens families. Without requisite quantitative skills, individuals will find it very difficult to make a transition from welfare to work. Without critical skills to assess medical claims, individuals will often fall victim to false claims and questionable treatments. Without the skills to manage a household budget, many become victims of easy credit or consumer fraud. In short an innumerate citizen today is as vulnerable as the illiterate peasant of Gutenberg's time.

Lynn Arthur Steen is Professor of Mathematics at St. Olaf College and editor of "Why Numbers Count." He can be reached by e-mail at steen@stolaf.edu.

To add your voice to this discussion, e-mail comments, letters, and op-ed articles to: extend@stolaf.edu or click here.

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Last Update: July 17, 1997