To shape tomorrow, look to the past

How can we, as citizens of the world, talk about where we should be going without knowing how we got to where we are today?

Shimon Peres 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Shimon Peres 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
‘Facing Tomorrow,” the Israeli Presidential Conference that will be held here June 21-23, will be bringing some of the most prominent minds in the world here to discuss issues of crucial importance to the future of Israel, the Jewish people and the world.
But how can we, as a people, as a nation, as citizens of the world, talk about where we should be going without having a fundamental awareness of how we got to where we are today? The modern world is characterized by rapid technological development, the result of the accomplishments of many great researchers.
Regrettably, though, in the race for technological advancement, worthy as it is of our praise, we have lost the desire to examine that which has brought us to this point. How can we be “facing tomorrow” without a full appreciation of the past and present?
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I am speaking here about research in what we call the humanities – a field that encompasses those areas of knowledge dealing with the culture created by human beings, in all of its aspects, its expressions and its influences. I see a great danger in the abandonment of our efforts to understand in depth this rich, creative heritage and this infrastructure that forms the delicate fabric of our society. This is a danger not just in Israel, but across the globe.
To a great extent, humanities studies within our higher education networks have come to be viewed by many students as secondary, difficult to fit into a demanding complex of courses designed to provide the necessary tools for entering a career. This applies even to the most talented of students, who may want to specialize in the humanities but who feel that the academic positions available to them in the higher education system are too few to provide a promise of future employment.
What is the price of this situation? It implies destructive consequences: We would become a society that functions, to a great extent, without progress in such fields as philosophy, art, history, music, literature, languages, religion, theater and more. These areas have served as the basis for the development and intellectual progress of humanity throughout the generations. One could say that without becoming familiar with that treasure, one could earn a degree at a university – even an advanced degree – and yet be a boor when it comes to the “great ideas of mankind.”
The diminishment of the study of humanities, therefore, is in effect a backward step – a decline in intellectual knowledge, a decline in the quality of our leadership, and no less importantly a decline in the individual’s ability to appreciate human thought and creativity.
But one cannot just sit back and decry the situation.
We cannot and must not restrict our teaching solely to fields that have “practical implications.”
To do so would be to endanger our “spiritual security” and our creative thought, which are the basis and the foundation of a lasting and solid society.
The writer is president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is participating in this month’s Presidential Conference, “Facing Tomorrow.”