For all of their positive attributes, humans have one massive problem built into them: they need to quantify everything.

I suppose it stems from our evolutionary patterns: humans that could count the number of flowers that they ate; the number of days they went without food; the number of animals they hunted—would be the obvious survivors in the game called life. Quantification gave us a massive edge as a species; it was a new way to see the world around us.

Of course, we aren't in 2.5m BC anymore. We're in 2021.

Today, that same primordial instinct of quantification plays into human lives in more ways than we can possibly imagine. From determining the maximum amount of time we can use up to scroll through Twitter to how many plushies we can afford on Amazon, numbers play a crucial role in determining how we live our lives. Like our counterparts 2 million years ago, quantification adds an incredibly important idea to the 24 hours of drudgery that defines life: it adds perspective.

Boiling down scenarios, events, and systems to nothing more than numbers makes it all easier to take in. Reflecting back on your day in bed, you might think to 12:07 PM, when an old friend called you for 20 minutes to catch up on high school. Another person in the apartment next to you might think back on the day before, when they held a loved one's hand for the very last time. Numbers as an idea can be abstract, but the concept of quantities themselves are indistinguishable from the human condition.


The Human Condition

However, there's a key element of humanity that's missing from those four words of scenarios, events and systems: identity.

Going back to our Neanderthal ancestors, the relationship that identity had with our evolutionary adaptation of quantification can be found in the nature of society. Surviving on your own was nearly impossible in the wild; we evolved to feel at home with others, where diversity of identity meant that there were more vectors for defence against predators. Unlike the quantification that was applied to the actions of daily life, the identities of the individuals in societies weren't rigorously defined. We formed societies on fundamental agreements, and later, on ideas.

And so, while quantification as an idea has followed in the footsteps of humanity's actions from the very beginning, the confluence of identity and numbers has gone in quite the opposite direction.

If all of this seems abstract, that's for a reason; like I said before, quantification allows you to view the world in a different way: it adds perspective to life, which is why I'd like to prove my point by going back to a fairly simple example of quantification in the life of a high school student—the test grade.


Testing

It's 11:00 PM. You've finally cleared out your homework for the night from your other classes, and it's time to start the big kahuna of the night: study for your test.

Your friends from previous years told you that this math test wasn't massively important—it accounted for about 7% of your final grade. Your teacher didn't say much to contrast that.

As you get to work, your feelings start to work up.

The first hour of reading through your textbook goes by in a flash. Soon, it's 12 in the morning.

Your parents head to bed; it's nothing more than a distraction, but at least now you don't have to worry about anyone yelling at you.

It's 1:00. You've made it through half the chapter, and panic starts setting in. You flip to the end of the book to try out some of the practice problems, and only manage 5.

Anger sets in. Why did you wait this long to study? Everyone else is sleeping, and you're the only one in the class that still has to go through with this.

You're dreading the next day: if you take this test, what mark will you get?

I've written about thinking sideways before—enjoying the process of learning instead of just the mark—but this perfectly natural scenario is a good example of how surface-level philosophy breaks down in the face of true panic.

As the minutes tick by, you give up and fall asleep around 2; you're three quarters through your review, and can't take anymore.

The next day, you wake up to the purple screen of a Google Form. 30 minutes in, you're stuck. Your teacher yells, "Time's up!"

In that moment, you understand that, to put it simply, it's game over. You couldn't complete the last page of questions, and you're not even sure if the other 4 went through.

As you close your laptop at 11, you lie back in your chair, thinking about what got you to this point. It's interesting that throughout this entire time, you've never once thought about truly understanding the content that you're studying—only the mark that you're studying for. Now that the prospect of an 80 or a 90 has been ripped from your hands, it feels crushing.

A few days later, you get your rubric back. 52/70 - a 74. You look at Instagram, where all your friends are boasting about their 97s and 99s. You look back at your email tab, and think back at your failure.

It's all over, isn't it?


Testing & Identity

The reason that a bad mark feels so terrible isn't because it's inherently terrible. That gut-dropping feeling is synonymous with the human condition in modern times; when quantification is what it means to have an identity.

In high school, you're defined by the numbers that you bring to the table: the marks that you get on a test, the number of leadership positions you take on throughout your 4 years, the number of universities you get into.

There's an unwritten social hierarchy that little outside of the system can tell, and it has to do with the simple fact that quantification is the easiest way of comparing individuals.

Society functions on power dynamics—that's what has made up the bulk of historical affairs. High school is no different, but the metrics for comparison are a little bit different. It's a constant competition that changes with the year. In the early 2000s, high school might've been a race for popularity. In some ways, it still is—the number of followers you have on Instagram is equated to the number of connections and friends you have; the number of notifications constitutes how much people want you in their life. Now, it's about how much you can achieve.

It makes sense; Gen Z's always been marketed as the 'generation of change'—at the end of our 4 years, the only thing that we have to look forward to is college, and so applications are the most important test of our skills there is. With the race to set our lives on a positive trajectory in full swing, the high school experience now is all about who can be the most successful. 'Successful,' in this case, means being part of the group of the people that fit colleges' definition of a good applicant, and so ideas associated with applications are also the ones that high schoolers strive to optimize for.

This feeling of 'fitting the box' is all-pervading.

In conversations, resumés and extracurriculars will be regularly brought up. When reviewing applications for executive positions at just about every organization out there, it's common to message a friend at 2 in the morning about a missing comma.

This continual progression—this obsession—with objectivity and the quintessentially competitive experience of quantification has led us all down a slippery slope of letting the numbers define us.


Reflection.

I'm not going to sit here and act like I haven't gone through it. On the contrary, I feel like it's inevitable that every high schooler feels the need to compare themselves to others at some point.

In Grade 9, I was obsessed with figuring out what university admissions would be like; I signed up for LinkedIn, connected with students from top-tier universities on Twitter, and tried to get into higher-tier social circles.

I'd incessantly look at the profiles of all my friends, figuring out who my competition was. I'd find resumés and essays of people from around the world that made it to the universities of my liking to try to emulate the statistics and numbers that they chose to publish.

In hindsight (quite literally 20/20), it was the symptom of a boring dystopia.

The scariest part of that part of my life wasn't that I was doing it. The constant abstract-number-checking and comparisons felt mandatory; all my friends were doing the same.

Everyone I knew was preparing themselves for the applications they'd write in Grade 12. I didn't know a single person who hadn't already boiled down their entire lives into numbers to compare, and even when I tried to fight back against my instincts, it felt like I wasn't doing high school™ right.

That's where the title of this essay comes into play: the humanities.


Humanities

As a STEM-focused student, I've always felt like Math, Science, and all the 'normal' subjects were the ones that I was the best at. The subjective ones were another matter: Art, English, History, and to some extent, French, were all ones that I (no pun intended) wrote off as being courses that I just wasn't wired right for (indeed, after I got straight 70s and 80s one year, I just gave up on English as a whole).

I found solace in the quantification that would dominate my life. The numbers discussed in math and science were the same ones that I'd use to compare myself to others; to figure out who I was.

Having one solid answer for all my questions was incredibly comforting. In those subjects, I could drift away into the realm of logic and reasoning, and not have to worry about anything else. There was a beauty in solving a complex derivative that I don't think I'll ever experience anywhere else. My delusionary enthusiasm with these objective subjects led me to believe that everything had an empirical answer, not just the ideas I'd write on my chalkboard at home.


Breakthrough

After a few months in quarantine, I was fed up. I remember lying awake in bed one night—the same way I might've done after getting a bad test mark—and thinking whether this was what high school was meant to be.

To put it simply, constant comparison wears down on you.

It's hard to feel the need to establish an identity on your own when you base your entire thought process on the achievements of others.

One fateful day in August of 2020, timetables for Grade 10 were sent out, and my stomach dropped.

My timetable for 2020-2021

Somehow, I'd been placed into my worst nightmare: courses dealing with the arts in 3 out of 4 of our quadmesters.

The panic that ensued had a couple of prongs of causation to them. I'd been preparing for Math just about the entire summer after hearing horror stories of failing the course from the Grade 10s of the year before. Again, I fell in love with the preparation and the delusion that the numbers shot me into. When I saw Civics, English and History pop up on my timetable, I knew that they were courses that I couldn't prepare for in the slightest—there was nothing to optimize for.

Starting in September, it felt like everything flipped. Civics didn't feel like one of those courses that would play any real significance in my life, and yet... it did.

Sure, staying up a night to write 3000 words about Liberalism and Socialism didn't do much for my math mark, but for the first time since I'd started high school, I was having fun. That night, I forgot about thinking about my mark for that assignment, because I was loving it too much to care.

That final assignment for Civics was one of many in that semester to slap me in my face. I always thought that school was about the numbers: what your report card says, and whether or not your high school transcript is impressive enough to say something to higher institutions of education. My first humanities course taught me that it was okay to be unsure about things. Identity is complex; reducing it to numbers does nothing but build more abstraction on top of it.

Surprisingly, I found myself focusing more on my Civics work than I did on my Math tests; I'd trade a couple minutes of studying in one subject for studying in the other, which eventually turned into hours. I fell in love. I hated being unsure of things in my life, and yet when those assignments asked me to analyze the deepest parts of human nature—ones that didn't have any possibility of being thought about numerically—I saw myself happier than ever.

In the next semester, I finally got over my fear of English, and understood what it was like to think about identity itself. Where Grade 9 Rishi would look at the mark that he'd get on a paragraph, I'd start to look at the words that composed it a little bit more closely. Like Civics, English wasn't about numbers. Figuring out what Gothic Literature took to write; the mindset of those that created it—were things that were fundamentally about conceptual ideas. Literary devices felt stupid in the beginning, but understanding why semicolons are used in a sentence wasn't the point. They were about speaking to the person behind the story.

Was the course abstract? Absolutely. But who's to say that that's a bad thing?

I used to decorate my room with awards and medals. Today, I decorate them with the pages of my favourite essays. Instead of falling in love with numbers, I fell in love with emotions. English made me realize that life isn't about quantities. The thing that made the Homo genus Homo Sapiens wasn't our ability to count, it was about our ability to love. To make friends. To make connections with others.

That brings us to History, where the man who, on the first day of the course told us that he wasn't an "emotional guy," managed to encapsulate some of the most vivid pictures in stories of battle, bloodshed, and humanity as a whole in his lectures. Even now, I put on recordings of those Meets, listening to them as podcasts of years gone by. History isn't the study of people or time, it's the study of stories (as the direct translation of "histoire" in French would show). Studying for it wasn't about reviewing facts, it was about reviewing feelings—it was an odd feeling for me, but one that was more than welcome.

History allowed me to look at my own life from a different lens. Where did my story lead?

When I look at a Humanities course now, I don't see marks. I see a new perspective on the world, just waiting to be discovered. I see new ideas; new ways of thinking about... everything.

In math, you might be able to find a new way of solving problems. In the Humanities, you find a new ways of finding passion. They're the thesis of what emotions can be, and for someone whose identity was all about statistical living, the nonrepresentational nature of the humanities was a paradigm shift in the way I thought about myself.


Conclusion

Going back to the ideas that I brought up in the beginning, quantification dumbs down ideas to make them more reproducible for your tiny flab of meat inside your skull, and it allows you to add perspective to this weird series of events that we call life.

It's a necessary standard of living, but one that, when applied a little too generously, can breed competition on unimaginable scales.

Quantification is one of those ideas that's all too easy to fall back on when things get too abstract—which also happens to be the reason that individuals frown upon interest in the humanities, and write them off as being unapproachable. In reality, humanities are important not because they teach regular things, but because:

They teach feelings.

They teach what it's like to be... human.

I've struggled with abstract thoughts, emotions, and this ridiculous idea of quantifiable comparison for about as long as I can remember, and as it turns out, all that it took to organize them was a new perspective: it took a humanization of my ideas.

It took the humanities.

For that, I'll be forever grateful.