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Uhrick '11: Peeking into the dark corners of history

As I face my graduation and possibly the last semester of my education, I am tempted to look back and ask, "What have I learned?"

The answer — which is especially relevant in debates about the value of a liberal arts education — is that in college, you often find yourself learning the same thing over and over again. In different forms, in different places, with different skills sets — but still, at the end of the day, the same basic concepts.

The social sciences in particular fall into this pattern. When we study the foreign, we study the dysfunctional and dark. When we study the domestic, we are often myopic and limited in our scope. A true liberal arts education should examine what works in society as well as what's broken, and should question things that we take for granted, from democracy to liberalism to free trade.

In many ways, the story is the same across the different fields of social science, and even across time from high school to college: We learn about the broken and the interesting, not the functional and "boring." We learn about the devastation of World War II but not about the European unification that came after it. We learn about the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and the hypocrisy of China's "Communist" Party but not the stories of the millions of families lifted out of poverty. We learn about the depths of sectarianism in the Middle East but not the success of the Ottoman Empire in keeping much of it under one rule for centuries. We learn about the developing world, and we sympathize with its struggles. We learn about the developed world and its struggles, and we see a warning, but rarely do we study a place and actually learn.

American history, on the other hand, which most people know from high school, always seems to be taught on fast-forward: Start with the colonies, the American Revolution, George Washington, Native Americans and the War of 1812. Fast-forward to the Civil War, the fantastic defeat of the South and slavery in one fell blow. Fast-forward to World War I, briefly, and then World War II, America in all its world-saving glory. And then time always seems to run out for the epilogue, the insignificant and uninspiring Korea-Bay-of-Pigs-Vietnam-Watergate-Gulf-War footnote to this tale otherwise filled with ever-increasing amounts of awesome.

We learn, of course, about the demons that we faced along the way — racism, sexism, classism. Demons that we have, to the best of our collective ability, vanquished, but whose regrettable stain is still spilled across the pages of our history books. That we continue to actively guard against these problems and examine these stains really is evidence of how far we have come and how noble we are. Unexplored, however, are often the demons that we might still be avidly embracing — from Vietnam to higher education to CIA involvement in foreign coups.

Brown offers high hopes for this dichotomy to change — finally, a chance to light up all those dark corners of history. But when we study the foreign, we still focus on the broken and warped, and when we study the domestic, we still focus on the demons of days past, of the comforting we-know-better now.

The dirtiest secret in all this, and one that comes to light after spending time in a foreign country, is that all countries teach history this way.

Domestic history is about glories accomplished, demons vanquished. Looking at foreign countries through foreign eyes makes you realize that all countries and cultures can have their horrifically negative qualities drawn into the light. When I studied international relations in Ireland and Germany, I realized that students abroad learn about the United States in the exact same way — they point out our burgeoning obesity, our violent crime rates, the irrationality of our politics and sometimes ignore all that is good about us. Look at them, they say, how broken they are. How they keep spiraling further into their violence, their lack of care for each other and the world, their hedonism and decadence. That does not mean they are right — but it is shocking to realize how easy it is to demonize something by simply removing the good qualities from the bad, without teaching any lies at all.

Break the cycle. Take those courses about developing countries and definitely explore the darkest corners of the United States' past. But also take courses on what works around the world — what other countries are doing right that maybe we are not, and come to it with the mind that you have something to learn.

 

Michelle Uhrick '11 is an international relations and economics concentrator from Connecticut. She can be reached at michelle_uhrick@brown.edu.


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