by Stephen Jay Schwartz

I was sitting in the cafe and the girl with the backpack squinted at a textbook called Statistics and I asked her how the hell she made sense of it.

“I had a choice this semester,” she said. “History or Statistics. I hate essays–I never know the right answer. With math and science I know where I stand.”

I thought for a moment then responded, “Yeah, there’s safety in numbers.”

Me, I always went for the essay classes. The only time I understood numbers in college was if they were measured in ounces, pints, fingers and occasionally grams.

Most students hate essays. They want fill-in-the-blank exams. Or, better yet, multiple choice. Like what you get when you take your test at the DMV. What’s the speed limit in a school zone? How many car-lengths do I have to be from the car ahead of me on the freeway? It’s any man’s guess. Somehow, I always end up getting my driver’s license renewed.

Most students won’t commit to the cumbersome weight of the essay, with its introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, and the big close, tying everything together with a resounding punch. It sounds like too much work–and it is. But if you’re a bullshit artist, the essay offers the best chance for that last-minute save-your-ass pass.

You really don’t have to know shit to write a good-enough essay. Want a ten-page essay on the French Revolution? I can wing that. Splice together what I remember of The Three Musketeers, Les Miserable, and that article in Newsweek about Robespierre. Shazam–looks like I’ve been at it all along.

But it’s scary, making it up as you go along. I can see why the numbers people cling to their rulers and compasses.

What I mean to say is that numbers are safe. Chemistry works for a reason. If you’re a little unsure about where to place your feet in the quicksand of life, lean on the numbers. They’ll take you to the next step, and the next, and the next. Before long you’ve left a trail.

I never knew if I was going to ace or fail those essays. It really depended on my ability to read my teacher. Was he a good sport? Did he appreciate a student who bent the rules? Was she strict or old-fashioned? Did she have a bullshit meter, and did it matter?

In my opinion, everything I was taught was open for debate. It’s a good thing I didn’t study medicine.

Sometimes passion got in the way. Like the final exam I had in my Film as Literature class, which included five difficult essay questions. I can’t remember the nature of the first question, but I think it had to do with the development of “montage,” from Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” through “Birth of a Nation” and on to the works of Martin Scorsese. I had this topic by the balls. I knew it backwards and forwards and I was intent upon writing everything I’d ever learned on the subject. I remember a friend sitting next to me, seeing my frantic writing, asking which essay I was on.

“The first one,” I said.

“The first one? Get moving, man.”

Twenty minutes later he asked again.

“The first one,” I repeated.

It was like that all the way until the end of class, when we were asked to turn in our papers. I had written a ten page essay on Question #1. It was perfect. I failed the exam. The teacher told me I got an A+ on that first question, however. And, in some weird way, that was good enough for me.

I’ve had the opposite experience as well, where I’ve saved my semester grade with an inspired, last-ditch essay that even I didn’t understand. That’s the magic of the essay – you don’t always know where it’s going. It’s malleable. It’s not what it seems.

However, I failed my Astronomy final because there was simply no wiggle room in the distance between Earth and the Sun. Fudging numbers doesn’t put a man on Mars.

I did take one science class seriously, however. Chemistry. For some reason I decided I wanted to learn, really learn, what chemistry was about. I figured out the math part and did the lab work and discovered for the first time in my college career what it was like to know, definitively, something. Anything. The liquids turned the colors they were supposed to and the numbers backed it up. It was comforting. Suddenly, I could sleep at night.

I believe there are two kinds of people: numbers people and essay people. I think the numbers people are generally happier. The essay people, well, I know a lot of them. They live turbulent, ill-defined lives. They pretend to know the answers, while knowing, deep inside, they don’t have a clue. They live life without a safety net. They sometimes fall, making a terrible mess when they land.

But when they fall, they generally fall from great heights.

And, before impact, they swear they’d experienced a moment of flight.

Of course the numbers people will tell them they hadn’t left the ground. And the sensation of flight came from the rush of blood to the brain.

They’ll say the sense of being released from gravity is pure fiction.

And the essay people will say, yes, that’s it exactly.

20 thoughts on “SAFETY IN NUMBERS

  1. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Let the record stand that the author does in fact know that The Three Musketeers and Les Miserable have nothing to do with the French Revolution. This is simply the author's snarky, self-deprecating character unleashed.

  2. Sarah W

    The last six paragraphs of this post are too brilliant not to share. May I quote you to everyone I meet for the next week or so?

    Essay questions are definitely my thing — I remember writing one in high school about Hamlet that earned me an A, even though I hadn't finished reading the play and didn't have any idea that Hamlet and his mother died (the definition of Shakespearean Tragedy hadn't registered at that point, but came in useful in college, when I didn't finish reading Troilus and Cressida in time).

    But I also love physics — it's plug and play, at least at my level, but even if you know the tricks, the magic is still *so cool.* And it's a much more stable use of numbers than doing my taxes. You'll never convince me that those little buggers don't change the second I look away.

  3. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Sarah – please, quote away!
    In high school I had an English class where I was supposed to read a certain number of pages of a book by the end of the school year and do an oral report about it. I waited until the last minute, then read a Readers Digest condensed version of "Centennial." I totally bullshitted my way through the oral report and would've aced it except for one studious kid who LOVED Michner and knew "Centennial" inside and out. I danced as best as I could, but he pretty much blew my cover.
    By the way – now I'm quite fascinated with physics. I spent some time a few years ago reading everything I could about String Theory. And I'm always looking to see what that old Hubble Telescope is going to uncover next. Still, I don't get the numbers…

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hilarious, Steve, so true. No surprise here, but give me an essay every time. Multiple choice tests send me into paralytic indecision – I can always think of circumstances in which any of the answers would fit.

    I remember doing some major high school essay (AP History, maybe?) on American immigration that had no facts whatsoever, I just made it up out of my experience playing Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof. And there was one I wrote for an English history class at Berkeley on the Corn Laws – I got an A+ and to this day I have NO IDEA what I could have said in that essay that would make anyone think I had the slightest clue what the Corn Laws even were.

  5. Gar Haywood

    Wow, was this awesome. Pure genius, and numbers have nothing to do with it.

    I'm up again next Wednesday. What in the hell am I going to write to measure up to this?

  6. Dee

    I love starting my day with the Murderati blog. Kick starts my brain.

    Stephen, riff for a moment if you will on what happens when essay girl loves numbers guy–or some combination thereof. Have you tried pointing out the great heights and depths to a surveyor who knows exactly where the horizon is?

    On the other hand it was a great comfort to know that when Canada Revenue came after me it was a bank error–not mine/his.

  7. Richard Maguire

    Stephen, like you, I don't get the numbers – and in recent years I've become interested in quantum theory, and the great mysteries of the universe. But it's not easy trying to figure out what the hell they're talking about. How could you not be stopped in your tracks and believe you're a total idiot, with 40 pounds of mush between your ears, when you come across something like this:

    "…turns out that the entire planet of Ebbore is splitting along a fourth-dimensional thickness, duplicating all the people within it."


    Could even the great Sherlock Holmes work that one out?

  8. Troy

    So I'm a programmer by trait but distinctly remember in high school having to do a book report on a book of my choice. The night before the report was due, I hadn't chose a book, let alone read it. To remedy this, I made up the book to do my book report on. I got a 'B'.

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Alex – yes, multiple choice tests are designed to mess with your head. Especially when they instruct you to "choose the answer that best applies." Fuck them.
    I once took a bizarre multiple choice test to get a job as a Super Shuttle driver. It read like a poem by Gertrude Stein. I realized later that it was meant to get the candidate pissed off, to see how he will react in a frustrating situation. I guess they don't want homicidal maniacs driving the vans. I wasn't homicidal until I took that fucking test.

    Gar – everything you write measures up to and surpasses this. You're the real thing, baby.

    Dee – that's a beautiful line – "Have you tried pointing out the great heights and depths to a surveyor who knows exactly where the horizon is?" A great way to describe the relationship between two characters. It sounds like the beginning of a novel.

    Richard – yep, I'm totally fascinated by String Theory, Quantum Physics and the like. I can't wait for the day when everyone agrees on a Unified Field Theory. And I do believe that essay/numbers people do exist – like Einstein, for instance. He had it both. Saw the big picture and all the little details.

    Troy – Isn't it amazing that you can do a book report on a book that doesn't exist? I mean, where's the teacher's due diligence? How does that teacher even justify keeping his/her job? Kudos to you for pulling it off.

  10. Lisa Alber

    Brilliant essay, Stephen. I loved this!

    I'm an essay person, however, I tortured myself in college by studying economics of all things. In my perverse head I thought since writing and literature were easy, they must not be worthwhile. I needed to be SUCCESSFUL. Ack. I blew a beautiful Berkeley chance to study what I was good at!

    I used to pull all-nighters to pump out essays for the essay-type classes I did have (remember NoDoz?), not thinking much about them, and then suffer to the point of breakdown over the numbers classes. I was a sick, sick little puppy-ette.

    The lightbulb went off a few years later when I received my scores back for the GMAT exam. (Yes, I thought I was going to on for an MBA–hah!) After studying my ass off for the math sections, I only got a 89th percentile. With no studying at all, I got 99th percentile in the verbal sections. HELLO! I promptly switched short-lived careers from international finance (imagine; I still can't) to book publishing.

    Have a great weekend!

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Lisa – that's a great story. I remember when I went to North Texas State University to study jazz/saxophone performance. Even though it was an art, music was very much like math. I had a hard time with the music theory – all I wanted to do was improvise. Oddly, I was doing better in my freshman English classes than my music classes. My English teacher asked me why I was studying music instead of writing films, which seemed so natural for me. I got the picture and left music school to pursue film writing in Los Angeles. Not exactly the same thing as leaving economics, I know. It is interesting, however, how long it can take us to see where we excel. It took the GMAT for you to get the picture!

  12. Lisa Alber

    At least you had the sense to start out in an art, even if music didn't turn out to be the thing for you in the long run. I call that wisdom at an early age! 🙂

    I've ALWAYS yearned to play an instrument. I tried clarinet, trumpet, guitar, and piano at various points. None of them stuck because I couldn't get my head around the language of music. I kept thinking it should be like any other language–I'm good with spoken languages–but, alas, no. So I definitely hear you on that one.

    Funny thing? My dad was an engineer, one sis is an accountant, the other sis a computer programmer. Go figure.

  13. Karlheinz

    I love your writing.

    It is so distinct, so different from texts of most other writers I know. I don't need to see who wrote it, just reading a few paragraphs is enough.

    It's there, this strange, intense, warm, flowing atmosphere, the door that has suddenly opend. The other world that lays behind, now unveiled, is right in front of me, like a landscape that appears in the morning sun, green and colorful and lively and full of tasteful, forbidden fruits. It is a world that was hit and kicked and fucked with, but somehow, through your words, it seems as if none of it had ever been harmed. It is all there, whole, full and complete.

    After reading your posts I usually realise that the distraction, whatever had previously occupied my mind, is gone. I am focused. Very focused. And this strange feeling is still with me, this energy that lives in between your lines.

    It is not about this post or any particular subject, it is for all of your posts.

    Just had to mention it.

  14. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Karlheinz – wow. What a beautiful tribute, what an honor you've paid me. I read your comment first to myself, then repeated it out-loud to my wife and kids. And my wife's response was also, "wow."
    Your words mean a lot to me.
    What an amazing feeling, to sit down and write whatever comes into my head, and then to get this kind of response. It makes me feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. It motivates me to do more, to write more, no matter what else is going on in my life.
    Thank you, for making my day.

  15. David Corbett

    I was a math major, Stephen. I also did essays reasonably well. I understand there are some things that can't be quantifiable. And there are a great many unsolvable math problems. It's a very elegant science, really, far more artistic in its execution than, say, engineering, which is about results. Math is about beauty, elegance, symmetry, rigor. (The constant debate between engineers and mathematicians is: Does it work? vs. Is it rigorous?)

    In Stieg Larsson's THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, Salander passes the time trying to solve the following problem which remained unsolved for over 300 years. Simply put, it is as follows:

    Fermat's Last Theorem states that no three positive integers a, b, and c can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any integer value of n greater than two. (Squarespace won't do superscripts, so imagine each n is an exponent, not a multiplier). Assuming you care, of course.

    My point: there are some of us who inhabit both worlds. I wasn't half bad at essays. But I also loved finite algebra.

  16. KDJames

    Geez, Karlheinz, we try not to tell him things like that. Even if they ARE true. Now there'll be no living with him. (But you're right, his writing is that distinctive and that good.)

    Stephen, I hate to say this after the Einstein comment, but math and essays have always been equally easy for me. I used to secretly do my math homework in class (we weren't supposed to) while the teacher was explaining how to do it. Statistics and calculus in college were a bit more complicated, but I wouldn't say they were difficult. Not that I remember any of it. The only time I really had to exert myself to write essays was the year I had my dad for HS English. No way was he going to accept BS from me. Hardest "A" I ever earned.

    I always thought the two different kinds of people were those who "got" algebra and those who understood geometry. I have never understood geometry.

  17. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    David – I am certain that math contains beauty, and there's an art involved in its exploration. I get a sense of this, but from the outside. I don't think I'll ever learn enough about math (in this life-time) to really appreciate the beauty. I think a film like Goodwill Hunting does a decent job expressing this to the layman, and I'm definitely that audience. I guess what I'm talking about in the blog is the safety implied in a finite science, such as algebra, as opposed to the insecurity that comes from a life lived with the infinite observations derived from the arts, or from a realm where subjective observation leads one to conclusions that aren't always based in science or reason, like studying History. And these are courses of study generally defined by the essay.

  18. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    KD – and the third kind of people who lump algebra and geometry together. It's all Greek to me.

  19. Laura

    This post really spoke to me. I'm definitely an essay person. I'm studying law and I love it. I love that there's no absolute correct. If I can argue my point well enough, back up my reasoning with prior cases and research, I can get the grades I need.
    I barely remember my year 12 history exam. What I do remember is getting it back, looking at the A and thinking "I don't know sh*t about history" I'd memorised a couple of well-timed quotes and bam! (My teacher's BS detector must have been defective)
    I always wished I'd understood math. But as soon as it started with the positive and negative numbers I'd almost have to flip a coin to decide if my answer needed a – sign on it!
    Great post 🙂

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