I love data. This should come as no surprise to any student who has taken my classes. I tend to pepper my lectures with graphs, charts, maps and dynamic data visualizations. Sometimes I use them to highlight trends, while other times, I hone in on a single outlier that begs explanation. I even love to analyze data on student performance and study habits — I’m still trying to understand why there’s an uptick in Blackboard use at 6 a.m. each morning. My love for data is one of the main reasons I chose to be a social scientist.
We are living in an unparalleled time in the development of our ability to collect, analyze and visualize data. We have at our fingertips access to measures and computational tools that would have been unthinkable to previous generations. When I was in college just two decades ago, a professor might spend months producing a single graph to use in her class; I remember nearly every chart that was ever shown in a lecture because they were so rare. My undergraduate thesis seemed cutting edge because it had a single regression in it.
Now, we can turn to dozens of data repositories and quickly find answers to questions about our world and society. My favorite tool of the moment, Gapminder, displays population-sized dots on graphs that compare relationships between political, economic and social variables and can even put them in motion through time. It’s dazzling to watch. Gapminder’s graph displaying the relationship between GDP per capita and life expectancy has become a viral hit.
But data points are exactly as Gapminder presents them — dots. They tell us a great deal, but they often flatten the importance of the reality they convey. Take the single data point of 15.1 percent of Americans, or 46.2 million people, who currently live in poverty. Shocking as this statistic is, it obscures as much as it reveals. It begs inquiry into the diversity of experiences among poor families across the nation, and it conveys almost nothing about the human experience of living so precariously. To understand poverty and inequality, one needs to probe more deeply, exploring the complexity the data point summarizes.
At its heart, a Georgetown education — and speaking more broadly, a Jesuit education — is about connecting the dots. It begins with data: information about the world around us, its peoples, its cultures and its production of ideas and artifacts. But just seeing the panoply of data points is not an education. Our more important task is to put them in context, to see the relationships between them and ultimately, to discern in them our place and purpose in the world. Jesuits have embraced this task for centuries because we see a world charged with meaning, order and purpose. We see a world in which rigorous inquiry leads us into an experience of curiosity and wonder — at nature, the human person and every aspect of our human society and culture — and propels us into action. Jesuit education traces the arc from experience to reflection, decision and action.
As a student, your biggest responsibility is to see how one key data point — you, today, on this campus, in each of your classes and activities — connects with the world and its future. The study of the range of human experiences and thought, of nature and society and politics and economics, is anything but “academic” — at least in the way that word gets misused to mean an inquiry distanced from practical choices. It is the most practical of pursuits, because it is all about developing a worldview that helps you see where you fit in and allows you to choose how to respond to this world.
What makes this so exciting to me, as a Jesuit and a professor, is that nobody can do this for you. We can confront you with the best data and encourage you to collect new data and analyze it in new ways. We can present to you the theories and perspectives that the best minds have developed to explain the data and to devise solutions to problems and to understand our place in the world. But ultimately, you must connect the dots for yourselves.
You have this privileged, graced time to sift the data, reflect on meaning and make the critical transition from merely accumulating knowledge to cultivating wisdom. Each time you do this — and discover your place and purpose, and move forward from Healy gates as people of meaning and commitment — you give us cause for wonder and gratitude.
Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., is an assistant professor in the government department. He is one of the alternating writers for AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT …, which appears every other Friday.