The Spoke / The Power of History, Language & Culture Subscribe

Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix
An ignorance of history, of other cultures, and a lack of critical skills make it easier for others to manipulate us.

How do the liberal arts cultivate an informed global citizen? This question is pressing, not only in the context of the recent rise of illiberal politics at home and abroad, but also since the economic crash of 2008. Since that date, the numbers of students in the humanities have declined significantly across the nation. The liberal arts, especially the humanities, have increasingly come under attack by politicians and others who dismiss them as impractical. These critics would seek to train a narrowly-educated generation of technocrats with little understanding of the world around them. Doing so would be a huge mistake. Today, more than ever, we need global citizens with a broad general knowledge of the world and who possess the requisite critical and analytical skills to separate fact from fiction. An understanding of two branches of the liberal arts is particularly useful in this regard: foreign languages and history.

It need hardly be said that speaking a foreign language and having an understanding of foreign cultures are the first steps toward being a global citizen. Not only is learning a foreign language essential, but I would argue that one should also study a foreign culture in the target language. No translation, however good, can convey the exact sense of the original since the meaning of a language’s words depends on the underlying culture. Communicating in another language requires the ability to express the ideas and customs of a culture different from our own, to grasp how it constructs reality and understands the world. To do this means learning to think in a different fashion. 

Studying cultural differences inevitably leads to an examination of history. Studying the past allows us to understand both our present and future, even if it is impossible to practice preventive history. In the weeks before the election, the students in my World War II class easily drew parallels between our own time and the 1930s in France, during which economic difficulties led to the emergence of xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiments, and anti-Semitism. We also talked about the rise, in the wake of the catastrophic French defeat in World War II, of Marshal Philippe Pétain, an authoritarian, charismatic figure who assured the French that he alone could solve all their problems, infamously declaring that he would grant the French the “gift of his person.” Instead of “saving France,” he and his government went on to collaborate with the Nazis, leading to one of the darkest periods in modern French history.   

Here in the United States, one of the signal lessons of our recent election has been the importance of historical thinking and understanding to civic culture. Even a glancing familiarity with the history of slavery can easily allow one to dismiss the dubious declaration by then presidential candidate Donald Trump that African-Americans in this country are currently worse off than they ever have been. Knowledge is power. It allows us to dismiss falsehoods, including those uttered by our leaders.

Studying history, however, does more than just teach students about the past; it also obliges them to think critically, to process large amounts of information and make sense of conflicting analyses. Reading history requires a careful perusal of documents. In my history classes, students examine both primary source documents and secondary texts written by historians, examining them for bias. By analyzing rhetorical strategies, we ascertain not only which elements are present but also which notable elements are missing from the text. Thus, students learn to understand silences in history and the reasons for them. We see the power of this analysis in the case of a seminal lecture delivered to Sorbonne students in 1882. In it, French historian Ernest Renan defined the elements of the French nation as the shared desire to live together, in opposition to the German ideal of common “blood” and language. While the lecture, given in the aftermath of the loss of the Franco-Prussian War, condemned Germany for forcibly annexing the German-dialect speaking provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, nowhere in the text do the words German or Germany appear. This lacuna was, in part, a strategy aimed at diminishing and delegitimizing German power. In his speech, Renan explicitly rejected a common language as an element of national identity, in order to better criticize the Germans. Nevertheless, he tried to have it both ways, neglecting to mention that at this time, France was itself imposing the French language in schools in order to eliminate local dialects and promote national unity. Such an analysis allows students to understand the biases that inform Renan’s thinking, to weigh the accuracy of his claims, and situate his writing within the context of his time.   Students of history also study the biases of historians themselves, to see how historians create narratives of the past. That these narratives can conflict does not mean that all truth is relative or that universal truth does not exist. Some facts are indisputable—we have documents and eyewitness testimony to back them up. We know for a fact that at least six million Jews died in the Holocaust (recent scholarship tells us it was many more). But in cases where conflicting accounts exist, historians must weigh evidence from different sources, perusing documents in archives and elsewhere, as well as the testimonies of contemporaries to support their hypotheses. Indeed, historians viewing the same events sometimes come to different conclusions. But they do so based on their best understanding of the evidence at hand, after a serious critical process. Such skills learned in a history class can easily be applied to our contemporary world. We will not all necessarily come to the same conclusions, but we can at least examine the evidence based on a common understanding of how to arrive at the truth.

An ignorance of history, of other cultures, and a lack of critical skills make it easier for others to manipulate us. Far from being impractical, studying history and foreign languages and cultures equips students with the tools to become active, informed and engaged global citizens. While our current situation seems bleak, I have great confidence in the ability of students of the liberal arts to shape a better future, one firmly grounded in a world where there is no such thing as alternative facts, but the endless search for truth.  


Venita Datta is Professor of French Studies at Wellesley College. A specialist of modern French cultural and intellectual history, she is the author of Birth of a National Icon: The Literary Avant-Garde and the Origins of the Intellectual in France and Heroes and Legends of Fin-de-Siècle France: Gender, Politics, and National Identity. She is currently completing a book project on French-American rivalries during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

Photo Credit: Eugene Delacroix, “Liberty Leading the People," via Musée du Louvre, Paris, France, 1830.