Why History Matters
It's advising season on my campus. My management students will want guidance selecting their spring classes. Their major classes are easy to pick -- we have checklists and flowcharts to let them know what they "need" to take. It's the general education requirements and free electives that stump them. I typically point out that employers want well-rounded employees who can draw on a breadth of knowledge. Sometimes I share that the best course I took as an undergraduate was a physical geography class completely unrelated to my major — that you never know which class will completely captivate you. This fall, I will tell my students something different as I urge them to consider taking classes outside of the business school: Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to sell offensive T-shirts.
Last week, I was browsing the web, looking for current events to discuss in my undergraduate management classes. I came across several mentions of a T-shirt being sold by the Gap bearing the phrase "Manifest Destiny" and the unsurprising outrage and calls for Gap to stop selling the shirt and to offer a formal apology. Facing protests that the shirt was, at best, culturally insensitive and could easily be interpreted as glorifying the massacres and cultural destruction of Native Americans, the designer apparently issued a flippant tweet about the survival of the fittest. Quickly, Gap stopped selling the shirt, and issued an apology.
As a business professor, I initially planned to discuss the story and link it to the decision process that lead to the shirt’s initial release. As I read the unsatisfying apologies from the designer, I considered linking back to a recent class discussion on restoring trust and qualities of a sincere and effective apology. However, as I prepared for my class discussion, I realized that none of these topics really captured why I wanted to discuss the story with my students. It wasn’t so much the business blunder that I wanted to discuss; rather I wanted my students to come away from our discussion with an understanding of why, as business students, it is so crucial for them to have a broad background in the liberal arts.
Although I teach in a business school, my university has a long history and commitment to the liberal arts. We recently had candidates for president of our university on campus, and a common question the candidates were asked was how to articulate the value of the liberal arts. This is a crucial question, as there are clear attacks on the liberal arts through a devaluation of their contribution to society, cuts in research funding, and state governments questioning the appropriateness of distributing scarce budget resources to the liberal arts.
I argue to you, as I did to my students, that the Gap T-shirt is an excellent example of why the liberal arts matter. An American history class might have given a better understanding of the massacres committed under the name of Manifest Destiny. A sociology class might have given an understanding of the implications of the institutionalized oppression of Native Americans in the aftermath of these programs. A philosophy class might have led those involved to pause and consider the ethical implications of profiting from genocide. A strong liberal arts education might have prevented the sale of this offensive T-shirt, and the backlash a company faced.
A well-educated population is crucial for a vibrant economy, and in these times of constrained resources, a liberal arts education might be seen as an unaffordable luxury. I see parents encouraging their children to avoid majors in the liberal arts in favor of "something employable." I see students questioning the value of the liberal arts core curriculum we require. Some resent being "forced" to study a foreign language. Others question how they can justify the expense of a study abroad experience. Too many feel their time is being “wasted” by taking classes outside of their major. As business faculty, clearly I see great value in my students pursuing an undergraduate business major or an M.B.A., but that does not mean higher education should simply be conceptualized as job training.
Even if we accept an argument that we must prepare all of our students for their future working lives, the broad background provided by a liberal arts education can help our students see the connections from the past, to understand that there are multiple viewpoints or cultural lenses through which to view the world. To critically think -- to stop and realize that "Manifest Destiny" is not just a catchy phrase, but rather a complex issue from our past, loaded with pain and outrage.
My university recently redesigned our general education curriculum to afford students more flexibility and the opportunity to explore courses as free electives. I encourage my advisees to take advantage of this opportunity to take classes from other academic units — to take that sociology course that just sounds interesting, the course in political science that captures their interests. It is precisely the breadth of background gained by this exploration that is the true value of a liberal arts education. Be well rounded — check out courses in the humanities. Take a literature class or something in the behavioral sciences. I’m sure the Gap wishes someone had paid a little more attention in an American history class to avoid the sale of this offensive T-shirt.
Amy Lewis is associate professor of management at Drury University.
- Essay on how historians are defining what students need to learn
- (Liberal) Academic Self-Selection
- The Life and Times of T-Shirts
- Don't Say Stepford
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