Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Humanities are Important

The academic blogs I read have been blowing up lately with the talk of budget cutbacks and how they are affecting the humanities at schools and universities in Britain and in the US. Here is a letter to the president of SUNY Albany who cut 5 whole programs of study, almost all in humanities. The letter is really quite clever, and addresses all the reasons for the cuts using examples from literature found commonly in classes in the departments that have been cut. Meaning: your reasons are faulty as you would have known, had you actually taken any of the classes in departments that you’re cutting.

I found that link on a blog that also has an article on the value of learning history that says the value of learning history is critical thinking skills, learning to question what you are told, and learning to look for the bias in all sources. At least, that is what I took out of the rather long entry. You’ve got to get past the first couple paragraphs to get to the good stuff (which is a lot like my blog posts, actually.)

I am not an academic, but I think that teaching is important, and I think that the humanities are very very important. Yes to help us make decisions, yes to think critically, but for me the important thing that the humanities do is give meaning to everything that we do. I look to history to answer the eternal why.
Why are food and meals important?
Why are families structured the way they are?
Why are there different forms of government all around the world?
Why do I get up and go to work every morning?

Some people find these answers in the study of biology and animal and human behavior, some people find them in religion or any number of other places. Some people do not ask these questions, and those I think are the saddest of all. When I ask those questions I see a long horizon of history stretching out in front of me where all the possible answers for all the possible whys can be found, if only I look hard enough.

Last night on the way home from work I was listening to Fresh Air, to Terry Gross interview Carlos Eire about his new memoir. Terry was talking to Eire about how he became a historian and about his studies of religious iconography. All my thinking about the importance of history, about education, about the humanities gelled when he said:

"You know, symbols encode, deep deep truths and allow us to perceive them in a non-rational way. And by non-rational, I don't mean irrational. I actually mean that these symbols speak to us at a level that is deeper, and affects us and shapes our personality much more than any logical discourse could. You know, the United States is a very symbolically impoverished culture. So most Americans have trouble understanding symbols and how symbols affect them. But people who are in advertising have it all figured out."

Especially the part about the US being a symbolically impoverished culture. To me it was the same as saying we are a historically impoverished culture, because the history that we claim as ours only goes back a couple hundred years. I’m sure Eire might explain it differently, but to me a symbol is anything that one can draw meaning from, and I look for meaning in everything! I find meaning by looking at history, and not just American history, not just European history.

Because I am asking why and am actively searching for meaning and because I think others out there might be too; that is why I spend so much of my time on Living History. Sure, there is the escapism, and the social circle, but I could get the escapism from novels, and the social circle from any number of other geeky pastimes. I’ve talked here on the blog about the fact that I do living history in order to educate myself and educate others, but I don’t think I’ve answered completely the question: why is education important? There are so many answers to that one, but the important one to me, the one that I think might need to be pointed out to those making important budgetary decisions, is that history helps bring meaning to our lives and helps us answer the whys we might encounter in our daily lives.

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