History department needs quantitative reasoning course

Sam Thielman

History is a science in many respects. Historians form hypotheses and draw conclusions. They seek to describe and document the world around them. Perhaps the largest similarity between history and science, though, is their shared reliance on data. 

Historical data is a beast unto itself. While historians frequently utilize interviews and written accounts, they may also make heavy use of quantitative data. This aspect of historical research can often get overlooked, however, as the subject gets filed away with other liberal arts. The History Department should create a new course focused on teaching students about quantitative reasoning and research in the historical field.

This course would seek to marry the quantitative research that is typically associated with STEM classes with the discipline of history. There’s an extensive precedent for this. Following World War II, a paradigm shift in the historical profession led to the creation of a new era in history’s history. This movement, called “New Social History” was largely characterized by its “hard science” approach. That is to say, historians began to rely very heavily on quantitative data, such as from censuses, wills, and government records, to support their conclusions.

More recently, this quantitative approach has been making something of a comeback. With the rise in accessibility of documents through the internet, researchers can now draw from huge reserves of quantitative data to create conclusions. 

The history of these two movements is already chronicled in a few UT history classes. Thinking Like a Historian, a required class for all history majors, introduces students to these movements and teaches them many of the key characteristics of each. The course unfortunately doesn’t have much time to linger on any particular topic, as it seeks to provide students with a basic understanding of many different concepts and movements.

Many other history majors agree that this would be a welcome addition to the curriculum.

“I think it would be an amazing idea,” history sophomore Loren Fiebrich said. “It sounds super beneficial.”

“It would be really interesting to see UT provide a course which blends humanities and mathematics,” history sophomore Ashley Gelato said. “To discuss or even engage in historical research from the perspective of more statistical means like we covered in our Thinking Like A Historian course would be an interesting way of conducting a study of the past.”

Some of the History Department faculty agree. History professor Joshua Frens-String said that there is a long and important tradition of incorporating quantitative methods into historical research, which would be beneficial for students to learn. 

“Although later historians broke with and highlighted the limitations of exclusively quantitative approaches during the 1970s and 1980s, I think it’s important to not completely forget the role that quantification played in the modern historical discipline,” Dr. Frens-String said. 

This course could offer benefits to students looking outside of the history profession as well. The huge reserves of quantitative historical data mentioned earlier can be utilized by multiple other disciplines, such as sociology, statistics and geography. Learning how to engage with the historical archive and think about data in a historical way could be incredibly beneficial to students in these fields.

All that’s really needed for such a class to be created is a faculty member committed to teaching it and sustaining it. This course likely wouldn’t be able to be created until the 2021-2022 school year, particularly if it carried the Quantitative Reasoning flag. The sooner it’s made the better. After all, there are centuries’ worth of data waiting to be explored.

Thielman is a history sophomore from Fort Worth.