On Why the Humanities Matter

We teach the wrong lessons about World War II. I don’t understand how this happens since in a lot of classrooms it is six weeks or more as a unit and in some classrooms is about half of the material. World War II is not significant because of the battles that were fought. It is significant because it sets the stage for the modern world. World War II gave America its dominance, began to tear down European supremacy, and showed us how dangerous racism and imperialism are. It fundamentally reshaped the world, and yet that isn’t what we teach. What we teach is a narrative in which technology and money saved everyone, and racism was targeted and isolated.

The Holocaust could have happened anywhere. Pogroms against the Jews had been going on for a long time, and because the other European colonial powers and European colonial children didn’t seem terribly concerned about it when it was actually happening. Genocide had been happening since the dawn of colonialism, so had forced labor, forced population movements, and forced sterilization. My family was sterilized in the United States not long before the Holocaust. What made it particularly brutal was that it happened in the hands of a highly efficient, scientifically advanced modern state, which allowed them to systematically kill a lot more people a lot more quickly. Technology enables the state to be more invasive and more deadly. At its best, it allows the efficient distribution of resources and support of the people, but at its worst it has the power to kill in a highly efficient way. Technology doesn’t make people kill, because technology and science have no morals and are not ends in themselves. Technology is a tool. It is a tool that can make lives better, but it is also a tool that can be highly destructive – It depends on the society that is using it – that should be the lesson learned from World War II.

Because we were the victors in that war we treat World War II as though it is simply confirmation of our superiority and as if the only lessons we can learn from it are lessons about why we are (were) so awesome. All we talk about is how we acquired the money and prestige that resulted, and we tried to bury the lessons of the millions who were murdered or tortured. When we “won” that war it didn’t and hasn’t prevented the state from murdering its people, or oppressing its people efficiently, and that was the point. When we bow at the alter of science and money we forget something fundamental about ourselves. We reduce ourselves to squirrels driven by shiny things and tools that help us get shiny things. If that is how you want to live your life that is fine, you can do that, but you don’t get to make that decision for anyone else. The reason you don’t get to make that decision for anyone else is because you don’t have the right to take away anyone’s humanity.

Technology in the wrong hands is the most dangerous and destructive force in the world. That is what we should have learned from World War II. Technology combined with a society that values technology over humanity, that values efficiency over humanity, and that is guided by the belief that some humans have less value than others is how you get genocides. Technology is only of value to the extent that it makes life better for people. This is because it is a tool, and tools are great and important, but only when they are useful. The humanities remind us of this simple truth, they give us a basic understanding of our innate humanity, and they keep us from taking the humanity of others.


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