Teaching with Statistics: A Case Study by Joseph Glatthaar

My great friend Kevin Lambert at California State University, Fullerton says, “Nothing is more humanistic than numbers.” They bring order and precision to our lives, offer definitive and powerful evidence for us, and determine outcomes and decisions on the most difficult and emotionally wrenching issues.

Although the work of historians is an evidence-based profession, most historians are reticent to use evidence from social sciences and sciences, especially statistics. In our quest to better understand the human condition, we draw theories from the fields of humanities, social sciences, and sciences, yet most of our evidence comes from the humanities. Too many historians are completely intimidated by numbers and refuse to embrace them, while others understandably find quantitative studies either tedious reading or insensitive to the joys, hardships, and brutality of the past. But the truth is that numbers and statistical evidence help to enrich and accentuate more humanistic evidence. The question is not only how historians can learn to embrace quantitative evidence, but also, how can we teach this to our students?

The goal in my recent article, “A Tale of Two Armies: The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac and Their Cultures,” published in the September 2016 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era, is to expose readers to the value of combining qualitative and quantitative evidence.[1] I have certainly utilized more conventional sources, such as personal letters, diaries, and official correspondence. More importantly, I use statistics based on a kind of random sample (technically, a stratified cluster sample) to explain how the culture of the Army of Northern Virginia played an important role in its defeat and how the culture of the Army of the Potomac lay at the heart of its success. On my university webpage I have placed simple-to-follow charts in a PDF that are based on the statistical studies from the article, and also some statistical charts from my book Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee, so that individuals may use them for instruction purposes.[2] The statistical charts not only provide interesting information about military service, but they also give background information on the soldiers who constituted these armies. Such statistics can be an engaging way to help students understand the experiences of common soldiers whose lives might otherwise remain closed to us, and to help them understand aggregate trends within each army.

There are some key themes uncovered in my research that can be used in the classroom to help students reconsider myths that no longer hold true. For instance, the statistical evidence indicates that nearly half of all soldiers in the two armies (taken from my sample of 1,400 total men) were not heads of households.[3]

Personal and Family Wealth Available on the author’s website.

The entire article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.