Liberal Arts are Self Help for Society

Liberal Arts are Self Help for Society


As a teacher in several Liberal Arts fields, people (including my students) sometimes look at me, chortle or snort a little with a bit of an air of superiority and ask something like, ‘What good is Religious Studies (or whatever other class I’m teaching at the moment) today? We need to teach kids to make money. They need practical skills.’

Yes, they absolutely need practical skills. I’m not saying no one should be a plumber, or a car mechanic. Personally, I know that my car mechanic is a magical person. He is kind enough to endure my starry eyed wonder as he continues to keep my old car running. And, I don’t know anyone who would be less than eternally grateful for a plumber when you need one. Grey water is no one’s friend. However, they too need the skills and help that the Liberal Arts provide. I would argue that Liberal Arts topics such as history, sociology, and psychology are self-help books for our society at large, as well as for individuals. We need this help navigating modern life, perhaps more than in any time before.

But, what on earth will you learn besides the 'seemingly useless’ information about Hadrian’s wall or Siddhartha Gautama or whatever other arcane content we’re going to make you deal with? Well, quite a lot, really. The content may change, but the larger lessons and skills can be life changing.

Throughout history people have struggled just like you. In the most far reaching cultures, in the most distant times people loved their children and just wanted to get dinner on the table. They worked all day, and sometimes into the night. They struggled, they lost loved ones, they supported their government, they protested, they served in the military and went to war while families stayed home. This narrative is as true in North Korea as it is in America, and it was true in ancient Babylon some 3000 years ago.

Leaders are sometimes good and sometimes they suck, and it’s never 100% one way or the other. Political leaders are egotistical and arrogant. They have to be. Why else would you stand and say “yeah, I can figure out the best course of action better than all these other yahoos.” The question becomes, are they willing to learn, do they also have a level of humility and empathy for their own people and others outside their own land? Sometimes the Pharaoh was OK. Sometimes he (or she) was a complete bastard and the people suffered horribly. The same was true of Europe, and the same is true now.

History runs in cycles. We make forward progression, then we suck for a while. Hopefully we can see where we started to suck and correct our path. We are capable of learning from history, but we have to know it, read it, think about it, and apply the lessons. We all have to do this. We cannot depend on the academics, the political leaders, or anyone else to do this for us. It takes everyone. Including my mechanic. That’s one of the responsibilities of living in a Democracy. When you vote, you need to know who you are voting for and some of the history behind the patterns of that candidate's ideas. Family separation has a history, so does xenophobia. You think WWII is over and gone. Slavery is dead? Think again. Find the patterns.

Sometimes fiction is truer than history. Yep, those Comparative Literature majors have some wisdom to offer us. Listen up. History can provide accuracy, but it’s unstable when you do it right. I don’t have time here to go into all the problems of being an historian, but I can tell you that the human condition is an emotional, creative one. Emotional truths are the center of who we are; our anger, sadness, angst, frustration, joy, resolution, and exuberance cannot be fully captured in the names and dates of history. But, the sheer will to break the chains of oppression may be expressed in the great words of poet Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise.” Historians cannot capture that emotional life that is at the center of the human spirit, that requires something like Hamilton to tell us not only a version of what happened, but also why it mattered and still matters.

Whether you’re ready or not, the world is becoming more diverse and we are slowly realizing that there is no such thing as “race.” We are all part of the human race. Our stereo-types are serving us less and less. Some Chinese students suck at math and are brilliant artists. Americans can be humble. I know at least one Mexican who hates tacos. The plumber will have to enter a home where a woman is wearing a hijab, it would help his business if he understood what that means, and doesn’t mean. My mechanic will likely have to work with someone who is very different from him. We all live in a world that stands on the brink of either a great leap forward or a steep fall into despair and subsequent re-building…AGAIN. The choice is ours. But, this choice has to be recognized first. Then we have to talk with each other, brainstorm, innovate and move forward together. It turns out (if you're a bit of a student of history) our brightest moments come when we work together, our worst moments come when we are driven by fear and anger.

You don't have to be a college to student or sacrifice those ‘practical skills’ that will earn you a lot of money. All you have to do is a little reading (or listening to a good audio book), talk to the humanities nerds around you…we love to discuss this stuff. Engage your curiosity in American History - get to know the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, maybe even the Declaration of Independence. Don’t get paralyzed by despair (at least not for too long). Try some American Literature- “You may trod me in the very dirt; But still, like dust, I’ll rise” (Maya Angelou). Help the people and animals around you. Ethics- if you stand by and watch evil, you are no better than the evil-doer. Tell your plumber and your mechanic thank you. Religious Studies- all traditions basically say the same thing: don't be an ass. Do not give up. Find inspiration and pass it along. Be kind and patient and it will come back to you. These are a few of the reasons why the Liberal Arts still matter.