Recently, I have been learning more about a fascinating and truly horrifying conflict that seemingly few Americans know much about, World War I. In my own experience of secondary (high school) education, we did not linger on World War I for very long in my history classes; it was treated as essentially being just a precursor to World War II, a conflict with much clearer causes and more obvious moral lines.
The war lasted from 1914 through to 1919, and since the United States did not get involved until the last two years of the conflict, it is often not seen as a very big deal in American history classes, at least at the high school level. This is not the experience of history education that many in Europe (and other places such as Canada, Australia, France, and New Zealand) have, where what was then called The Great War had numerous huge and lasting impacts on life, art, culture, society, identity, and politics. While delving into this engrossing subject in my spare time, I find myself a little embarrassed that I did not know much of this stuff already. It is not a new feeling.
I have often found that in my amateur study of history I have learned so many things that have influenced my perception of the world-so many events of the past have echoes in the conflicts, struggles, and concerns of today. As the old adage goes, if we do not learn history we are doomed to repeat it; yet it seems humanity is near-constantly repeating its own history, both the bad and the good. It seems possible nonetheless that an informed public has the potential to prevent injustice and catastrophe.
Yet there is a push-a powerful push-in the US and in other countries as well to downplay the importance of the humanities (history, art, literature, etc.) in education in favor of the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) and to more heavily emphasize standardized testing over other traditional methods, such as essay writing. Concerning STEM, we are told these fields are where the jobs of the future will lie. The most commonly cited offending, useless major is art history; a subject many apparently find to be useless and of little redeeming value in society. In America, the English literature major is not far behind as a subject of ridicule. I have no quarrel at all with STEM subjects as they are obviously fields that need continuing development and support, and testing has its place, but I write this column to push back against the notion that the humanities should be pushed aside, marginalized, or made available only to the those fortunate enough to afford access to them. Not only is the study of the humanities crucial to a well-rounded education, it goes a ways toward helping to ensure a better society.
Once upon a time, I was a literature major in college. You get a little bit of everything as a literature major: a bit of history, a bit of geography, and even some science here and there in addition to voluminous amounts of practice in reading and writing. I believe that to study literature is to develop your ability to think critically, too feel deeply, to construct arguments, and to expose yourself to the poetic wisdom of the world. I do not regret it as a course of study, and I certainly do not feel I should be “unemployable” in the world job market.
Yet politicians and education reformers the world over are trying to convince us that societies would be better served with more standardized testing, and a stricter emphasis on reading and math ability while ignoring other intellectual subjects. President Obama has praised the Korean education style publically, seemingly without much awareness of the criticism that exists within Korea concerning its own education methods. For example, the argument has been made that here in Korea, English as a course of study (and, of course, as a test result indicator on a job application) has been over-emphasized in lieu of other valuable subjects in secondary education. As a professor, I understand the value of tests and testing and I certainly understand the value of learning English in a globally connected society, but are we failing our own future by limiting the potential of our current and future students?
Hard economic times (that one could argue were brought about by an ignorance of history alongside greed and political incompetence and/or corruption) around the world have created a situation where schools and universities are under tremendous pressure to slash their budgets, cut programs, merge departments, and downsize faculty. In the US, jobs once held by tenured professors are being squeezed out in favor of lesser paid adjuncts desperate for work in order to pay off their own extremely expensive educations. Colleges are being run more like businesses, and this I believe will pay poor dividends to our children and our societies in the long run. Much is made of the internet and its vast quantities of information, but as we all should know by now, information and knowledge are not the same thing. A truly educated person is better equipped to navigate the data seas of the modern world and find within in it worthy things.
A well-rounded education should be attainable in modern society. STEM subjects are indeed important. Despite how an ageing curmudgeon like myself might grumble about the accelerating pace of technology and our boundless potential to misuse it, it is apparent that science has the potential to be one of humanity’s noblest pursuits. However, I have no desire to see education throughout the world be reduced even more than it already has been.
It should also go without saying that history, art, music, etc. can be misused. Tyrants, warlords, and political con artists have often stoked hatred in their own people using the emotional tools available to them from the narratives of history, as well as song, design, and oratory. In a less dramatic sense, there probably are cases where universities are wasting time and money on frivolous pursuits. A scalpel is better than a chainsaw in this regard. There are different forms of critical thinking, and we access them through different educational disciplines. To deny the opportunities to provide a wealth of educational experiences for our own children is folly.
Prof. Matthew Ross -
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