Melvil Dewey, Albert Munsell, and STEM

dewey-decimal-system-and-books-filed-thereinMelvil Dewey created the Decimal Classification System in use by libraries, the one many of us learned in grade school, and for which the 500s will always be science and the 800s always literature.  He mapped our knowledge in 1876, and since then the terrain has shifted somewhat, and grown a lot.

I was wondering how you’d represent the distortions introduced over time, as some areas of our interest and understanding swell relative to others.  Turns out someone has, using the online catalog of the British Library, and the upshot is the map of quadrilaterals above.  The robust green areas in the upper right are “technology,” for which Melvil originally budgeted 10%, the 600s.  In the last 140 years the tech portion has more than doubled, to 20.86% of our bibliographic bandwidth.

By contrast, it’s been a rough century-plus for philosophy and psychology, the diminutive beige area at the bottom right.  Also originally budgeted at 10% (in this case, the 200s), P&P now weigh in at a paltry 1.56%.  Even pairing them has lost its sense.  (My thanks to Cameron Mence of Melbourne, Australia, who posted this on his blog Subroutine, highly recommended for its other mathematical visualizations and whimsy, as well as some important disclaimers on the methodology behind this image.)

This illustration of our urge to subdivide proportionally, and its perils, reminded me of a scientific principle behind color.  Most of our senses faithfully convey one-dimensional information to us along a single axis.  So for example, a surface that gets warmer as we touch it feels only warmer, and not also smoother.  Sound that’s higher in pitch strikes our ears as merely higher, and not also as salty.  Not so with color, which is really just differences in wavelength, a simple, single-number variable.  So if we perceive a pure, single-wavelength color of say, green, it looks to us categorically different from the pure, single-wavelength color of red, and we map them as opposites on a color wheel.  But they’re not opposites; in the physics sense, green is just red singing at a higher pitch, and purple sings higher still.

Albert Munsell, a contemporary of Dewey’s, tried to map our sense of color into a three-dimensional space, where the three axes represented hue, saturation, and value, along evenly spaced gradients that matched human perception.  Try as he might, symmetry eluded him.  He thought he would get a sphere, but all he ever got were irregular shapes like this one:


I was recently thinking about Melvil and Albert, while commiserating with a colleague in the CSU Office of the Chancellor about our misguided efforts to improve outcomes in STEM education.  Stay with me.

Albert-munsellA challenge with courses in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math is that they are hard to pass.  Defenders of those disciplines will say that’s why successful graduates in those fields are better paid.  Maybe.

I think it’s also possible that, like libraries and paint stores, our 21st century universities are served only partially by early 20th century taxonomies, and their zeal for uniformity.

Melvil_DeweyThat is, it’s possible that the contours of a field like, say, fluid dynamics, just don’t fit comfortably inside three-credit-hour boxes.  What if I can successfully learn the gist of art history in fifteen weeks, but for trigonometry I would do better with, I don’t know, nineteen?  Right now, state university students don’t get that option.  They either figure out trig in fifteen weeks flat, or they take the whole thing over again.

As part of the California State University’s current student success push, well intentioned presidents and provosts are ranking their college deans by pass rates.  Get most of your students through on the first try?  Gold star for the College of Arts and Letters.  Need longer?  Darts and ridicule, and fewer faculty lines, for the College of Subjects That Use Calculus.

I get it, and I’m proud of all we’ve done to prioritize success for all students, in every major.

But I think, at our best, we may be like libraries and overdue for a rebalancing of our categories.  At our worst we’re like Munsell before his tactical retreat from symmetry, and still obstinately hammering our curriculum into a shape that it won’t fit.


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