It’s Time To Reclaim Some Territory

By Professor Fred L. Johnson III, Hope College

After years of sniping and hurling poisonous charges, the people who’ve been questioning the value of a liberal arts education and, specifically, whether disciplines in the Arts & Humanities are pathways to “real” jobs, are getting their wish. Because while articles and testimonials have repeatedly underscored the importance of the liberal arts in all fields, in all careers, in all phases of life, few opportunities have been lost to classify liberal arts disciplines as interests pursued by those who either don’t want or need a job.

So congratulations naysayers on believing that it’s actually possible to educate and develop superior workers, citizens, leaders, and human beings by starving their humanity. Yes, congratulations for being either unaware or unfazed [or, aware but unfazed] by the intractable dysfunctions in government, the workplace, and in society at large which, along with causing frustration, anger, and alarm, are becoming the new permanently normal. For you see, no nation that so profusely claims a desire to continue leading the world can expect to be taken seriously when it’s committed to finding ever more creative ways of denying future leaders the practical and conceptual skills necessary to lead.

All credit is enthusiastically given to the doubters and detractors of the liberal arts who have insisted on prioritizing matter over mind, thoughts over thoughtfulness, function over fit, qualifications over capabilities, knowledge over wisdom, and results over consequences. Their diligent dedication has been essential in helping produce the hyper-distracted, non-visionary, willfully gullible, increasingly balkanized, rampantly distrustful, antagonistic, self-centered, social miasma called—today.

Still, it’s not too late. Although the worst vitriol of the liberal arts harassers is spewed onto those disciplines in the Arts & Humanities, they can neither obscure, nor magically disappear the force of irrefutable evidence exemplified by the people whose lives and careers verify and underscore the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and, yes, financial benefits, advantaging those with an Arts & Humanities background. So in addition to sparing no effort to provide students with an education that’ll get them that [admittedly] all-important first job, the battered toilers in the liberal arts also provide the next generation with the lifelong skills necessary for keeping, advancing, and succeeding in any job. This is especially true with regard to the professional and personal preparation supplied by historians.

For historians have a uniquely critical role to play in bringing clarity and calm to the contemporary confusion that’s stifling the possibilities for progress. Historians and their resolute commitment to critical thinking, their bold determination to strive for objectivity [despite their acknowledged impossibility of escaping bias], and their stubborn refusal to dilute the precision and power of oral and written communication, stand collectively as a lighthouse of hope for a ship of state that, more than ever, needs to find a safe harbor ASAP!

Doubters need to look no further than the continued evaporation of civility in public discourse, gadget-bedazzled techno-prophets who minimize, or dismiss indomitable humanity, and, given the depth and breadth of national angst, the contemporaneous resurgence of fear-mongering, xenophobia, discrimination, and appeals to humanity’s dark side.

The scorched earth rhetoric of 2016’s presidential campaign ripped the scab away from festering concerns regarding the processes, precedents, conflicts, and conundrums that have generated confusion about the functional effectiveness of America’s republican democracy. Missing too often from the swamp croaking of bamboozlers, purveyors of fake news, merchants of blame, talk radio blowhards, and outright liars, was the rigorous, fact-rooted, fact-originated, and fact-tested perspectives of the historians.

Historians bring a myriad of reconciling benefits to the weary body politic. Rather than allowing disagreements to fracture their community, historians strive to embrace disagreement for its power to keep them from becoming too enamored with their own positions. They generally respect and hold dear the methodology and imperatives of historical inquiry which imposes an occasionally brutal but always thorough process of filtration. This helps keeps them honest and warns benders of truth that, for historians, when it comes to the truth, court is always in session.

Let me be clear. Historians make no claims of infallibility. If anything, historians are acutely aware of their shortcomings and foibles. Their fascinated preoccupation with the mischievous and lethal activities of humanity shines a revealing bright light upon the infinite imperfections of themselves and the species to which they belong. Humanity’s bloody record of reliably recurring nightmares like war, injustice, and oppression have provided historians with an embarrassment of grim riches from which to learn lessons and gather wisdom. Conversely, humanity’s heroic moments of nurturing peace, uplifting the weak and vulnerable, fighting injustice, and embracing the unique wonders of the world’s individual billions are stirring motivators, reminding historians of their awesome responsibility to do their due diligence in helping maintain the strength and prosperity of America’s democracy.

For this democracy forged in revolution; matured through the trauma of Civil War; tortured by its persisting hate-love relationship with immigrants; sincere commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while denying them through ingenious manipulations of law and custom; showing the world the excellence of its soul through a movement of Civil Rights; daring to suffer international slings and arrows for taking humanitarian actions other nations deemed too difficult or not worthwhile; this republican democracy is too valuable, fragile, precious, and full of positive possibility to entrust solely to those who, every two, four, or six years, promise second comings of a simpler, better, worry free life.

By applying their healthy skepticism to test every word, action, perspective, and nuance of a subject, historians lay bare its character, intentions, attributes, and deficiencies. Looking from the dual vantage point of their own lives and through the brutally revealing telescope of time, they identify trends that, in the past, led to national train wrecks and which, in the present, serve as cautionary narratives for consideration. Historians gift their fellow citizens with libraries of information from which they may deduce for themselves whether or not contemporary promise-makers are genuine, innovative, and sincere or if they’re updated versions of yesterday’s wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Historians especially enjoy sharing their gifts with their students. They bequeath to them a love for fact-based truth and the habit of testing those truths by repeatedly running them through a relentless gauntlet of rigorous critical thinking. Those students take with them into any workplace, anywhere, all the time, their finely honed skills of inquiry and analysis, independence and self-motivation, problem-solving, teamwork and team leading, cross-cultural competency, technical adaptability, project management, and superior oral and written communication abilities. Those students also bring a powerful inquisitiveness that constantly searches for the factors, forces, and trends that have helped [and can help] systems and institutions, and the people in them, perform better and more profitably.

It’s time for historians, colleagues in the Arts & Humanities, and throughout the liberal arts to stop wringing their hands and recognize that it’s likely to be later than sooner before society recognizes the liberal arts as a critical element in resolving contemporary problems. For like the patient who’s unaware of their life-threatening disease, just because they haven’t been diagnosed doesn’t mean they’re not in desperate need of the cure. Historians, the Arts & Humanities, and the liberal arts are anxious to help achieve that cure.

That won’t be done by meekly and quietly ceding ground to the doubters and detractors. Because they have skillfully convinced [understandably] disgruntled citizens that those who teach, for example, the foundations of America’s political origins were somehow responsible for the obscene greed and corruption that caused the recent Great Recession, the persisting chaos in America’s immigration system, and the failure to defeat ISIS.

Giving the benefit of the doubt, most people probably know that practitioners of the liberal arts did not cause those and other daunting problems but, frankly, so what? The greater concern is that so many have been hoodwinked into believing the same. Historians, the community of the Arts & Humanities, and the liberal arts must work harder, be more determined, speak up, and speak out with more force and frequency. They must do so with compelling narratives, about the profound immediate and long-term practical and conceptual benefits of their disciplines if America means to maintain its status as a global leader.

Quietly hoping for such public comprehension only invites more doubt and derision from a tuition-hawkish public that rightfully demands to know why its dollars are better spent on producing more historians. It’s time to tell them. It’s time to show them. It’s time to roll up sleeves and fully engage, fighting word for word, speaking truth to distortion, showing value for every dollar spent, to win hearts and minds and put the naysayers in check. No battle was ever won by those who didn’t show up for the fight. The doubters and detractors have commanded the field long enough. It’s time to reclaim some territory.

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