Kids in the liberal arts and social sciences get a bad rap. They are derided for their “easy” majors, lack of relevant job opportunities after college or for ending up in careers that aren’t related to their degree. Engineers and other “skilled” workers, on the other hand, are increasingly valued in our culture, and many economists claim that the future of America lies in technical jobs that require specialized degrees. This is reflected in the fact that the number of business, engineering and health degrees received has exploded since 1970, while the number of history and liberal arts graduates has remained relatively stagnant, or in some cases dropped.
This fits quite well with the way Americans perceive themselves. We often think of ourselves as innovators. For example, we are home to nine out of ten of the most innovative companies in the world and are responsible for 70 percent of all venture capital investments. We understand ourselves to be a country of the future, and the jobs we value reflect that. However, America is in a period of change as a country; the way we perceive ourselves and those around us is shifting.
The modern era has led to a crisis in which the American national identity has been called into question. Our generation is significantly less patriotic than previous ones. Traditionally most of the history taught in our primary or secondary schools focuses on a singular narrative. It tells the story of Independence, Westward expansion, the Civil War and usually ends somewhere between World War 1 and the Civil Rights movement. This narrative predominantly favors a select group of people: wealthy, literate landowners. But today, it is becoming hard to ignore the many other groups that make up America’s past and present.
We often pay lip service to the idea that America has a complex and conflicting history, but research shows that Democrats and Republicans are generally split along urban and rural lines. It also shows that we are more likely to see the opposing party as a threat than ever before, and more likely to think that they are dangerous to the country.
However, while political ideology holds the largest amount of our attention, there are other signs that the nation is, well, just not communicating well. Studies have found that there is also less communication across economic divides–most of us have few friends outside our tax bracket– and that the average white person has 8 friends of different race per 100 friends, while the average black person has 17 friends of different race. The point is, most of these groups are pulling from different ideologies, perceptions and information pools. Some historians even argue that geographically, America can be divided into eleven separate cultures that transcend the traditional urban/rural dichotomy.
How do we include all of these groups into American history? The answer lies in education. The American story is simple and outdated; it must be revised in a way that more accurately reflects the shared culture of our country’s 3.25 million citizens. To do this, we need people who are trained in our history and culture. Liberal Arts majors are more necessary than ever because the United States is in desperate need of quality educators and thinkers who can construct a history that encompasses the lives of more Americans. Specialists in these fields can work towards fixing the divides that 233 years of national history have created.
Across the country different groups are pointing, shouting and blaming each other for their issues. The election of Donald Trump was a referendum for many marginalized rural communities who felt they were being ignored, while the Black Lives Matter movement and movements like it show that different ethnic minority groups are still struggling to be heard. The Occupy Wall Street movement, meanwhile, emphasized the hardships faced by urban lower and middle classes. Despite all this, there is still a pervasive feeling that nothing is really being done. Why? Because many of these groups oppose each other. Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street activists are viewed by many members of other communities as whiny or soft, while rural white people and supporters of Trump are viewed as racist or uneducated. This is self-destructive on both ends because all sides are talking, but they’re talking to the wrong people. There is a general lack of understanding. This is the issue that arises from a lack of cohesive identity. We as a people need to come together and create a narrative that brings more people into the fold. This is a process that must be led by people with a strong understanding of the nature of the current American identity. In other words, the way forward for America is to redefine what it means to be an American and to rework the core values and histories that will facilitate communication between the many complex groups across the country.
So we need specialists. We need more people who have spent time studying what it means to be an American. By investing resources into the humanities, we can facilitate the growth and well-being of our country by creating a new narrative. We need to put more money into primary and secondary school education. More than ever we need primary and secondary school teachers, educators and historians who can rework our national identity into one that highlights and promotes communication across the many complex groups of our very large country.