When I heard about Wolfram Alpha, I was tickled. It didn’t strike me as anything like a Google-killer, but I did think it had the potential to be a powerful research tool. Historians (and activists) often want to get their hands on quantitative data that can be hard to track down, and if Wolfram makes that tracking down easier, that’ll be a big deal.

So I plugged in some obvious search terms for scholars of higher education, along with a few big subjects from the history of student activism, to see what Wolfram Alpha would turn up.

For the most part, it turned up nothing. When I searched…

  • university enrollment
  • college tuition
  • women in college
  • tinker v. des moines
  • student activism
  • student government
  • student newspaper
  • daily illini
  • hbcus
  • historically black colleges
  • students for a democratic society
  • sds and sncc
  • port huron statement

…it told me it wasn’t “sure what to do with [my] input.” 

In fact, other than the names of specific colleges and individuals, it was only able to recognize two of the search terms I entered. When I typed in…

  • first amendment

…it brought up the phrase “Constitutional Provisions,” and told me that “development of this topic is under investigation.” (When I searched on “free speech” and “freedom of speech,” it didn’t even give me that much.)

And when I plugged in…

  • weather underground

…it gave me a list of facts about a 2003 documentary on the SDS splinter-group. (The movie took in $564,632 at the box office, if you were wondering.)

I’d been hoping that Wolfram Alpha would function, at a minimum, as a replacement for the almanac I still occasionally pull down from the shelf, and as a user-friendly alternative to the US census website. But it’s not anywhere close to performing either of those functions yet.

For math and science, I’m told it’s pretty impressive. For basic calculations (currency exchange, weights and measures, metric conversion) it’s perfectly adequate — though Google has been doing that kind of thing for years.

But it has no idea what college enrollment or tuition is, and can’t tell me anything about trends in those arenas. It doesn’t know that Howard University is a HBCU, or even what proportion of Howard’s student body is black. 

When it comes to education, frankly, it doesn’t know much.