Call me an “educational idealist,” and I will wear the mantle with notable pride. I still believe that education, whether it is of the K-12 or higher variety, should serve a much more profound role in the lives of Americans than simply teaching toward the next test, or automating us to perform in sync with machines. In fact, I am willing to go so far as to suggest that it is due to our prejudicial detachment from areas of study that are not seen as “important” to the advancement of our modern society, that modern society appears to be in such a wayward state.
Before I go further, I must make it known that I am not stepping away from previous statements I have made regarding certain “academic” pursuits found in the contemporary academy. I still do not think that one need go to the university in order to study art. That has been done for centuries, with certain distinction, without driving the students into deep, dark, spiraling debt (that happened as a consequence of their genius going unappreciated until after their passing). Neither have I reversed my opinion that “Gender Studies” is a topic unworthy of academic pursuit. Art is an outflow of the soul, and thus can only be taught to a very limited extent; gender studies are what both genders do every weekend from the onset of puberty.
There is, however, a group of areas of study that is both of critical importance and, in this brave new world, is ascribed little value. I write, of course, about the humanities. Let us first look for the value in the humanities. What areas of study constitute this ambiguous collection? They are traditionally thought of as the classics, history, linguistics, law, literature, philosophy, religion, the performing arts and, yes, the visual arts. With the last two, value them though I do, I do not believe and will not consent to their inclusion in the university. The rest, however, are inherently valuable. It is upon the humanities that our global society is built. By neglecting and minimizing them, we willingly erode our very societal foundations.
Without Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, where would we be? Without them, we would not have Hobbes, Burke, or Locke, the latter of which without whom we would not have one of the most well-known phrases in ever written. Perhaps you have heard it once or twice before:“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The clause in bold is a paraphrase from Locke, altered by Thomas Jefferson, who is largely responsible for authorship of the Declaration of Independence. It is interesting to note that by Jefferson’s own admission, the Declaration contained no original ideas. This bears repeating: the Declaration of Independence – the document authored to tell King George that the colonists would no longer be subject to his rule; the document that put into motion everything that today is the United States – contained nary an original idea. It was all borrowed from elsewhere, from ideas long gone by.
As society advances, its needs change. We absolutely need more scientists, doctors, engineers, and technologists. We need, also, a compass. The past informs us of our heritage, what we have long held to be true. It may be that those traditions are in need of change, but to change them we must first know them. In short, these seemingly valueless pursuits provide us with a national, and perhaps even a planetary soul. We cannot have a discussion on ethics in government if each participant is working from his or her own ethical code. We cannot hope to find any sort of ease to the tensions among world religions if we are unaware of any religion but our own. On that note, we cannot hope to participate in a discussion of ethics, religion, politics, or any other such matters if we know nothing more than their basic lexicon.
To attempt to move forward as a society without a firm understanding of from where we have come is to set out to sea without a compass – we may get there eventually, but it will take a good long while.