Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist and historian and co-author of “The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe.” He is a senior academic adviser in the history department of the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
If you graduated college this year, congratulations. While living through a global mass death event (that isn’t close to over), you made it.
Hopefully, if your university or college did well by you, you not only acquired a specific body of knowledge (your major) that perhaps will help you get a job, but also developed new ways of thinking and knowing, building your capacity to engage an ever-changing world and react to the things you haven’t seen coming. And if this year has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t predict what’s going to happen, but we can do our best to be ready for it.
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been struck by how often our challenges have emerged not from a lack of scientific expertise or access to resources (in this country at least), but from a lack of understanding of how fields of knowledge overlap and depend on each other – and from failures to acknowledge how humans work as individuals and groups.
There has never been a global pandemic about which we’ve known more and understood so quickly. The Covid-19 genome was made public by early January 2020. Thanks to years of research into mRNA vaccines, the Moderna vaccine was assembled just over one weekend not long after.
We understand more or less the science of viruses, of germ theory, of infection. We know how to quarantine and that it works, and with modern telecommunications, quarantine didn’t have to result in total shutdowns of work or school (for all of us, both were fraught and unequal), not to mention the ability for national leaders to share information and guide us simultaneously. After some initial errors, by the time we reached the end of the first set of lockdowns, we had accurate and effective tests for Covid-19 and we have the technology to trace infections. But we didn’t, at least in part due to the lack of effective communication, the lack of ethical leadership prioritizing the common good, and the resulting lack of trust.
In other words, the science was there, but the humanities were left behind.
This is why your school, again if they’ve served you well, pushed you to work broadly. You need enough scientific knowledge and quantitative reasoning (i.e. math) to process data and understand core concepts about how the natural world, even the universe (i.e. physics) works. But you also need to spend the time understanding how we got into this mess (history), how to form community with others (sociology), and how to make better choices (philosophy, religion, literature) and persuade others to do likewise (rhetoric, composition, communication). And you might need to be able to do this work in a language that isn’t English. Not to mention all the solace that creating and consuming art might bring as we face crisis, isolation and grief.
Even today, we the world lurches unevenly out of the pandemic, with old inequalities emerging even more starkly, the problem isn’t about STEM, but resource allocation, communication and ethics. We can see this problem manifest in a most concerning way in the fight over masking in public following the US Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) May 14th announcement of revised guidance.
Leaving aside the anti-maskers and Covid conspiracy theorists, I’ve been struck by the divides emerging among people of good faith who have tried to follow best practices all year. We’ve each had to make decisions that might be literally life or death choices, for us as individuals but also for our friends and families, but it hasn’t always been clear what the right decision actually is. At the core, we’ve had a challenge of epistemology, or how we know what we know. When we study the arts and sciences together at the university, we build the tools to practice better epistemologies.
But it’s still been so difficult. What’s missing from so much of the recent conversation is not the science, which again we’re doing pretty well at, but the understanding of trauma (psychology) and how it’s played out across the whole population.
So many of the people refusing to take off their masks, even outside, are understandably carrying the weight of a year of terror as the disease ripped through our world. Naturally, they’re going to be loath to immediately eat, drink, and be merry. But so many of the people angrily demanding we go back to normal, now that “the science” supports it, demanding people stop masking, are likewise carrying trauma. We express it differently, but the behaviors come from the same place.
I’m pointing this out to our new college graduates because every time I think about the humanities and Covid-19, I also contemplate the next sets of challenges. Climate change presents an existential threat to the continuation of life as we know it on the planet, and yet again, we understand the science. STEM will not save us, for all I dream of a miracle invention proving me wrong. But we can make different choices, choose different politics, push better policies, and change the world. We might say the same about violence, state and ethnic conflicts, inequality, and so much more.
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So whatever you studied and whatever you do in the years to come, don’t neglect the lessons of your courses that you took - likely with resentment or at least an eye roll or two – just because your university made you pursue general education. That lone history class wasn’t good for you because of any one thing you learned about the past, and you don’t study literature just to read specific books, but because of the tools they provide.
Oh, and if you had planned to be part of the class of 2021, but the pandemic interfered and slowed you down, please forgive yourself. My own time in the humanities has taught me that a global mass death event is pretty hard on all of us. Take a breath. We’re all going to need a minute.