The vast majority of the stories carried in the daily news will be washed away by time and forgotten by posterity. This observation has led many great minds to conclude that there is no value to be had in a mastery of current affairs. Why read The Economist when we can read Thucydides or Gibbon? The names and faces change, but the dilemmas and crises remain fundamentally the same.
It is important to recognize the truth in this idea and use it to stave off the myopia and paranoia that a loss of perspective can bring. But it is equally important, it seems to me, to be aware of our present moment and its unique perils and promise. In order to use our education to contribute to the great political debates of our time, we must first be aware of those debates and their significance. This requires at least a minimal engagement with current events.
By bringing a knowledge of history and theory to the reading of the news, we place ourselves in a position to step back from the sensational headlines and the hot-blooded arguments in order to look at current events through a more informed, dispassionate, and global lens.
Liberal education ought to provide us with an awareness of the small and transient nature of our selves, societies, and ideas; it should remind us that “between heaven that covers and earth that bears us up, all people are brothers and all things are in common, and all should be seen as one in their right to humane treatment,” as the philosopher Fujiwara Seika wrote. These realizations can enable us to better interpret the trends and events of the day and work to effect positive change and avoid repeating the tragedies that blacken human history.
There is no question that our world is crying out for a better understanding of politics and society, a better understanding of the causes and nature of conflict, poverty, and tyranny. We human beings are slow learners. Having witnessed millennia of warfare, we have come to accept war as an irreparable part of human existence, even though the next war between great powers could very well mean the destruction of the civilization we have spent thousands of years constructing.
Although America witnessed a 20th century littered with some of the greatest political crimes ever committed, we seem ready to add to that list; the vast majority of Americans stood by apathetically as our government blundered into an ill-conceived invasion and occupation of Iraq. Precious few are protesting the saber-rattling we are currently engaging in vis-à-vis Iran, and yesterday, Vice President Cheney defended the use of torture—“a tougher program, for tougher customers,” he called it—to a receptive crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
These are the outrages that our children and grandchildren will read about in the history books of tomorrow. But they are our generation’s problems, and they can only be solved or mitigated by a willingness to engage in the sober business of studying and educating others in social science, history, and the humanities.
Our problems, grave though they might be, are hardly unique or unprecedented. It is here that theory and history can help. There is no conflict in today’s world that does not at least somewhat resemble a well documented case study from history. The lessons of history are there to be learned, if we will only learn them and pay close enough attention to day-to-day events to be able to apply them. Liberal education can give us the training we need to understand the forces that drive and motivate state actions and to criticize those policies that are likely to lead to poor outcomes.
Can education lead to peace? That might be overstating the case, but I suspect that if more Americans had been politically engaged, fully aware of the costs of war, skeptical of government threat-mongering, and inclined to see Iraqis as distant cousins rather than as alien “others,” the Bush administration would have had a tougher time selling that ill-advised war to voters. If the students and faculty of America’s universities had led the way in protesting, raising consciousness, and otherwise sounding the alarm about the threat of war in 2002, we could have at least mounted a more vigorous opposition to the approaching disaster.
We may not be able to change the behavior of individual policymakers or states, but we can certainly weigh in on the policy debates of our time and urge a prudent and history-conscious approach to global problems. At the very least, it is clear that the consequences of an insufficiently examined and criticized foreign policy are making headlines every day, and we all share a portion of guilt for whatever mistakes are made and crimes are committed while America sleeps and its students are silent.