People have a tendency, in this day and age
, to reflexively dismiss any serious study of the liberal arts
. "Oh, why don't you study something real
?" is a question I get asked every couple of days (most often from people who are learning how to be a cubicle drone
of one sort or another, if they are studying anything at all, but I digress). A good deal of this dismissal comes out of the laughable delusion
that studying anything other than commerce
or a hard science
is a waste, useful only to teach - an absurdity
I won't bother to demolish
right now. It feels as though the main problem people have with my studying a "useless" discipline
is that the effects of such study not only fail to directly benefit
me - they don't even have an immediate impact
at all! So therefore, any attempt to study history
- or, God forbid
, actually devote my life to it - must be foolish, right?
Now, see, I consider that notion to be foolishness.
There is a growing - and also false - belief that people these days are somehow dumber, or less morally worthy, or whatever, compared to people in the past. It is a belief which I flatly reject; it falls apart under any examination, confuses education with the ability to be educated, confuses "stupid" with "knows less than I do about what I know," and is a direct assault on the notion of human equality. It states that some people - invariably the ones making the claims of others' stupidity, although few of them dare admit it - are superior on certain fundamental levels than others. I trust I don't have to explain the dangers of this line of thought!
My tone should make it obvious as to how I view my fellow man. I operate on the assumption that the average man on the street is at least as intelligent as my friends and I are. Perhaps not as educated, but certainly as intelligent. What is the difference, you ask?
You can fix a lack of education.
Starting to see, yet?
Yes; if someone is truly stupid, then they're probably stupid on a genetic level, and there's not a hell of a lot anyone can do about that yet, short of discovering things we haven't yet discovered. But an overwhelming majority of people are not stupid. They are in fact quite intelligent; you may have noticed we've hurled men to the moon and brought them back, eradicated smallpox, experienced sustained democracy- you know, trivialities like that. I will grant that a distressingly large number of people - intelligent, thinking people - are perhaps too ignorant. However, we, and I, can and will begin changing this.
I'm not necessarily a Heinlein fanboy, but I do agree with his statement that human beings are not insects. Unfortunately, there is a tendency towards treating them as such. Education has become narrowed to absurdly specific extents, to the point where a rounded education is not only undesirable, it is impossible. It has gotten to the point where it is assumed that you can only know and understand one field of study. I have been dismissed outright in several discussions, in which I was making perfectly correct statements, simply because we weren't discussing history, and I am "just" a history major, a mere artsie. It is one of the more aggravating insults I've had thrown at me, and the blind arrogance of that kind of statement has cost me friendships in the past.
People are discouraged from studying the liberal arts, viewing them as useless: a biology student has little room to study the philosophies which set his science into motion in the first place; a commerce major cannot learn the history of his country, and cannot understand why its economy is as it is; a mathemetician is hard-pressed to know how to analyze subtleties of meaning in the media or government, costing him his ability to apply context and understanding to the world. This knowledge, these skills, are all extremely valuable - and yet they are shunted aside in favor of cutting a few hundred man-hours of study out of a program.
I also reject the notion that this is somehow all well and good. There is a notion that people must not only specialize (which is fine and natural, even for us non-insects), but that they can only specialize and that they can't possibly waste their time and energy by studying something which isn't directly connected to their primary function. I don't understand this contept; do people not realize that they're not creating educated people by doing this as much as they're creating programs, skilled at a handful of preset tasks but with no real breadth of knowledge beyond that? I understand the exceptions, of course, but I'm distressed at the tendency these days to move more and more towards this. Studying outside of your discipline is now considered eccentric, frivolous, wasteful, shameful, impossible. One look at my own circle of friends, however, that it is quite possible to have both depth and breadth of knowledge in multiple, unrelated areas. A historian, competently pursuing a master's degree in information science, with knowledge of politics, psychology and philosophy well beyond the lay; a biochemist with a deep knowledge of eastern philosophy and martial arts; an accountant with an excellent grounding in astronomy; the list goes on. Speaking as a historian who has in-depth knowledge in God only knows how many other fields, I can say comfortably that it is not terribly difficult.
But what does this all have to do with my defense of the liberal arts?
It's pretty simple, really. I do accept that, by the standards of this society, I am quite well-educated. That is not a boast; I don't consider it to be terribly difficult, and believe anyone with an IQ in the nineties or higher has the ability to break the specialization trap, to know much about much rather than much about little, with far less "wasted" effort than most people fear. It's quite possible, and it's quite easy - moreso if you start early, of course.
Now this is where I come in.
I have every intention of becoming a teacher, primarily for history and/or political science, and I'm confident that I can live up to the primary expectations of the job no matter which subject I'm placed in. However, just as there is more to my education than the string of names and battles mentioned in my history courses, there is more to what I have to teach than the one subject. I owe the students more than that sort of dry, robotic experience. The purpose of a teacher is to instill knowledge of their subject - but it is also to promote thought, to provide a number of different, new avenues of contemplation which were not made available before.
There is so much more that can be taught than the dry repetition of facts. Even a history student finds that kind of teaching appallingly dull, and I know I can do better than that. See, I am, as far as my friends are concerned, a human virus - or at least a relay. I don't simply explain things, I generate interest in topics, and have every intention of inflicting that quality of mine upon any poor charges I have in the future. In addition to any curricula I have, I will be in a position to promote analysis, discussion, insight, curiosity: all the basic qualities needed to set someone up to the point where they can begin really learning, rather than simply absorbing facts. My goal, in studying my "useless" liberal arts of languages, history, classics, geography, political science, and so on, is to provide myself enough of a grounding that I can begin to responsibly influence the next generation, by encouraging them to stop simply absorbing a dry procession of facts and helping them to begin reaching out in all directions, asking their own questions, finding their own answers, and casting off that robotic, hyperspecialized insect-shell which has infected our society so badly.
To study history is to know the past. To know the past is to understand it, and explain the present. To explain the present is to understand it - and to understand it is to have the power to shape the future.
I'm getting myself to that point by giving myself the education to understand things to this point, and by giving myself the education to be able to intelligently and responsibly use that influence. Which I have every intention of doing, thirty-five victims at a time, eight times a year: empowering chunks of the future generation, by the scores and hundreds, to eventually have the power to shape their future when the time comes.
In other words, noble reader, I am going to be cheerfully fucking around with the future through your children, and they are going to continue and improve on the trend, beginning to take back the comprehension of who we are, and where we've come from. And from there, we can start determining where we go with wisdom and responsibility.
Hang on. It's going to be one hell of a ride.