Back to School: Data Literacy and an Urgent Reason to Study Data

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Click to learn more about author Carie Lemack.

A literate society is not necessarily a numerate one. Where one is absent, the other is almost always lacking, because it is hard to appreciate—never mind articulate—the fullness of an idea without a full vocabulary. Expanding that vocabulary must be a national priority, beginning in primary and secondary school and continuing through college and graduate school; continuing throughout the course of a person’s life, so that an individual can be both employable and ready to employ his skills—or her talents—for the good of America and the betterment of the world.

I write these words as tens of millions of students go back to school. I write these words to encourage schools to adopt—and for teachers to advance—not just numeracy but enthusiasm in general; because the latter flourishes when the former thrives, producing breakthroughs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

I write these words, also, to remind readers that Data Literacy is neither the exclusive domain of a single entity nor a subject too esoteric for us to learn.

Data is instead the stuff of life. It marks our long ascent from the swamp to the stars in which we have converted the codex of history into the code of life itself: a double helix that defines the structure of DNA.

Data abounds from the earth to the heavens. Its interpretation depends on its collection, allowing us to understand not only our origin as a species but the origins of the universe. It is at the center of the arts and the sciences, where all disciplines intersect and all answers beg more questions; where physics explains the how of what we see, while metaphysics asks us to ponder the why of what we think we know; where biology explains the physical nature of humankind, while psychology seeks to find ways to nurture the best of a person’s nature.

Data is everywhere.

Acquiring it is not a challenge. Accessing it is something else altogether, which is to say the ability to comprehend data—the capacity to analyze its meaning and apply it in a meaningful way—is the challenge we face as a society.

A change in school curricula addresses this challenge.

The greater challenge is to educate through engagement: to transform theories into tangible concepts; to transfer data into a three-dimensional model; to send this work into space, so astronauts aboard the International Space Station can test this or that experiment.

The good news is that all of these things are doable.

The even better news is that a citizenry literate enough to elevate itself culturally—and numerate enough to elevate itself scientifically—is a community of the highest elevation, period.

It is a citizenry rich in intelligence, with a wealth of wisdom.

It is a citizenry eager to decipher data, so everyone can debate its significance. It is a citizenry unafraid to make mistakes, so everyone can avoid making the same mistakes twice. It is a citizenry conversant in many things and fluent in the things that matter most.

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