The Washington Post recently published an article (linked above) about the incredible interconnectedness of the world through the use of Facebook and, by implication, other social media sources. It reveals, as did the tweets of Egyptians at the start of the Arab Spring, how remarkably small our world has become. With this increased contact among 1 out of 10 world citizens using Facebook, it reminds me of how important history and the other liberal arts are as necessary disciplines and groundwork for the future.
It comes down to two basic points:
- It is imperative that we know ourselves: Understanding our own development and culture allows us insight into our own reactions and motivations which is essential self-knowledge, permitting us to gauge why we operate the way that we do. Thus, it allows a greater access into a foreign culture and society as well as a better probability for successful communication and interaction.
- History and the liberal arts teach necessary skills for interacting with new or foreign cultures: History and the liberal arts, such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, and even English and literature, teach us the skills we need to meet the challenges of foreign cultures, unfamiliar customs and language, foreign habits, and new perspectives. It gives us the discipline to pause and investigate instead of jumping to conclusions or erroneous assumptions.
These are tense, tender times when a history education and a full-bodied liberal arts education are a necessity which signals hope for future relations, both domestically and abroad. I do not mean to suggest that math and the sciences are unnecessary–quite the opposite as they have an honored place in the liberal arts tradition and teach hypothesizing and testing of theories, and besides that, math is the universal language–but, they cannot come at the exclusion of those skills and that knowledge imparted by history and its humanistic brethren. Nor, for that matter, do I want to suggest turning away from vocational and job training programs. Again, quite the contrary, as my A.P. history professor pointed out many moons ago when he shared the story of a young man in the Votec program for heating and air training: The young man began his history class rather disinterested, convinced that it was a simple waste of time. A few years after his graduation, he returned for one of the high school football games and shared his perspective on a contemporary policy issue in light of certain historical precedents.
The need that has always existed for cultural awareness and origins not only remains relevant, its necessity becomes more pressing. Sam Wineburg has argued, eloquently, for the need of history as a method for gaining access into a foreign culture–whether separated by time or distance or both. The increased and incredible accessibility of the world’s citizens demands the due diligence of both students and educators. What has always been true in grappling with domestic issues through their roots, now extends to the world at large. We cannot fail.