I apologize in advance for contributing my own kindling to the already blazing inferno of think pieces responding to the 2016 U.S. election, but, as an English graduate student with aspirations of being a college professor of Literature in due time, I feel obligated to share what I’ve felt to be a leading factor in the anger, division, and outright conspiracy theories that have now, officially, set the course for the most powerful nation on Earth for the next four years at least. That factor is, as you might of guessed by the title, the failure of Humanities education in the United States of America.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the Humanities is a blatantly disregarded discipline in the U.S. Jokes about unemployed Philosophy and English majors are so wide-spread that university departments devote considerable time and energy to simply convincing students that there is a benefit to the Humanities in the first place, with many a webpage devoted to enumerating the desirable skills provided by studying the Humanities (see here). In my own experiences as a former Writing Center Consultant, I can verify that there are plenty of students graduating from high school in the U.S. who have never written a full page of text on their own, who possess only a rudimentary grasp of grammar, and who’ve never been expected to do more after reading a book than be able to list the events of the text.
Before anyone signs out of this post here, fearful of a “grammar nazi” tirade, stay with me for just a bit longer. Some of the very same students were among the most hardworking, intelligent students that I spoke to during my time as a consultant. The problem had nothing to do with their ability, but simply what they had been expected to do.
So, you might be asking, where does the election come into play? Well I would usually categorize the skills one gets from the Humanities into two broad headings: literacy and communication. Literacy, fairly obviously, is the ability to read, but it is also the ability to understand what is read and it see its relationship to other, seemingly extraneous situations. Furthermore, it is the ability to assess the reliability and consistency of what is read. The ability to communicate is the ability . . . well to communicate.
Even I’m sick of my stuffy definitions, lets get to the point, shall we?
Let’s start with unpacking the failure of literacy in the election. This election was, at least partially, decided by conspiracy theories. Yes, there were hard line Republicans who would never dream of voting any other way, there were hard put to it working class people who heard in Trump’s message hope of a new job instead of a place in the Welfare line, and people with genuine, reasonable reservations about Hilary Clinton. Then there were people who voted for Trump because they believed Hilary Clinton is a rampant murderer and suffers from very well hidden Parkinson’s Disease (you know, that really subtle disease that Michael J. Fox suffers from). To make a brief recourse to the anecdotal, I’ve heard extremely intelligent, rational people hold this line of argument in real life, face to face, not just in the no-man’s-land of the internet. As explained earlier, literacy is more than just reading; it is the rational evaluation of what is read. It is asking whether the writer is biased and making a decision to seek additional sources to verify what you have read. Yes, the internet makes it very easy to spread fake news (see here for a Guardian article on the same theme), but, with a quick Google search, verification has also never been faster. This kind of literacy, focused on checking the validity of sources, is a central component of a Humanities education, but what are you going to do with a Humanities education, amiright?
For those of you who made it past the grammar nazi scare who are now considering signing out before this crazy liberal writes the next Communist Manifesto, again, patience, patience, the Dems and a proper definition of communication (you didn’t think that I would really let that shoddy one from earlier stand in a post in defense of the Humanities did you?) are next.
As any Rhetoric and Composition professor can tell you, good communication is clear, simple, and fact-driven (though always willing to engage emotionally), appropriate to its subject-matter, and, what has probably been the most grievous mistake for liberals and conservatives of late, it speaks to its audience, not against them. It doesn’t take long to see where self-proclaimed Democrats and the Left at large failed in almost all of these charges. Some defended their views with unnecessary critical terminology and identity theory to force an intellectual high-ground in situations where a simple “do unto others” would have sufficed, but those who failed to communicate through appropriate means failed most “bigly” (maybe that word alone suffices for why the Humanities were sadly absent in this election). If I am interested in applying for a job, I send in a cover letter, not a greeting card. I text my friends, but I call my grandfather. A key to clear communication is to choose the medium most conducive to what you want to communicate and to whom you are communicating. As a whole, I feel like the Left failed to do this this election season. Bernie-or-Busters chanted in the aisles of the DNC rather than took efforts to make their loss into a victory (something I feel Sander’s himself succeeded wonderfully at doing). Thousands of protesters are marching across the U.S. in protest of Trump’s victory, many of whom did not bother to march to vote, and, please do not mistake me, I am completely in favor of their decision to march against President-Elect Trump, but if this is the only course of action you are taking you are failing to communicate clearly.
And, finally, both sides of this argument are failing to actually address their attempts at communication to one another. It is really easy to convince a bunch of Trump supporters Trump is great, and it is easy to convince a bunch of liberals the very same about Hilary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, but this doesn’t actually accomplish anything, and referring to those you disagree with as libtard-crybabies and nazi-deplorables isn’t really reaching out to the hearts and minds of the people. People respond when communication is addressed to them in such a way as to make them feel “on the same team” with the communicator. If you have any doubts about how important the words you choose are, simply consider the fact that a billionaire real-estate tycoon currently has a lot of middle-class factory workers convinced he understands and cares about their problems. It is up to Americans to realize that most people agree that they want our country to be a great place and work towards that together, instead of in opposition to one another.
So, you might ask, what’s the takeaway here? Simply put, the Humanities, the most widely dismissed branch of academic study in the U.S. today, is the only one that could give the American citizenry the skills needed to fight back against conspiracy theories, to articulate their political goals clearly and productively, and most importantly, to remember that the big bad “other” isn’t so other, but is really just a human, subject to the same failings as you and anyone else on your “team.” After all, it’s called the Humanities for a reason.