Growing up, I was enamored with stories and history. My mother and I read books together before I went to bed every night and my grandfather who lived nearby is an American History buff. My favorite TV show was Liberty’s Kids on PBS; a cartoon that followed two teenage journalists in the American Revolution.
Following high school my love for history and my desire for a small, connected community led me to search for liberal arts institutions in the Northeast, and I found Muhlenberg College.
Those who write on the future of higher education often gravitate to subjects based on who will pay, dealing with student loan debt, technology based learning, and outcome and success measures. I would rather speak today on an understanding of the function of our higher education system.
Here at Muhlenberg, students are required to take two science courses as part of their general academic requirements. I picked my science courses in the hopes that I could connect them with my own studies interdisciplinarily. I decided to take “Human Evolution” and “Mind and Brain.” It was in these courses that my academic studies transformed.
I’ll never forget when Dr. Jeremy Teissere (head of our newly formed Neuroscience department) said “we [human beings] are an intersection of biology and culture.” I was under the assumption that all scientists felt as though studying the brain and biology would give us the all-encompassing, objective answer to the question of being human, but here was my college science professor telling me that my studies in the humanities matter just as much to understanding the human condition! This relates to what is known as ‘neuroplasticity.’
Thanks to this, neuroscientists have helped one man hear color and another walk after losing all ability to move. Famous neuroscientist David Chalmers describes neuroplasticity as an “ever-changing process” where “synapses are generated and dissolved, while others are preserved.” Highly affected by their environment, our brains continually rewire themselves to embrace change and new information.
However, continuous, repetitive practice thickens our brains’ connections. That means words, language, stories, our upbringings, and our present actions are all having a profound influence on the synaptic connections being made in the brain right now. The things we tell ourselves become ‘true’ in the sense that our brains embrace them and physically make changes to reflect them.
As a senior history and religion studies double major, I noticed this phenomenon pervades throughout our educational system’s entire study of ‘history’ and our collective culture as we tell ourselves the same stories over and over and over again.
My two disciplines have taught me that scholarship is done by those striving to be non-participant, objective, observers. Yet when I delve into the history of historical studies I have noticed something quite profound: the world view we have inherited, which we continue to reproduce, is born from the writings of violent colonists who claimed to know freedom and equality. But at the same time, these men were committing genocide on Native peoples and stealing their land, in addition to stealing and enslaving Africans for exploitative labor.
This mythic hypocrisy that they created has grown and become entrenched in our collective brain. So when we as scholars unequivocally accept the ‘past’ that has been written through the eyes of white, patriarchal males, we are bringing that past into our present and future. Historians have never been objective, passive observers of culture. “History” departments fly in the face of neuroplasticity, attempting to display an objective or ‘True’ version of the world that does not exist, which ignores their foundational biases.
The truth is, as long as we have departments like ‘Africana Studies’ and ‘Feminist/Queer’ Theory, classical “History” should be referred to as “Patriarchal, (White-European) Male Studies,” since it almost exclusively draws from those sources and viewpoints With this in mind I ask: How can colleges and universities embrace neuroplasticity? “You cannot be neutral on a moving train,” Howard Zinn famously stated. The train is our culture and it is profoundly affecting us.
I now propose that scholars and their students once again become active participants in our education dialogue. We must admit that words hold great power, that education is a reproduction of the past, and that that past creates the world around us and our future. By seemingly ‘passively’ absorbing what we are taught, we are actually actively enabling the current world order designed around imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and a cissexist heteropatriarchy.
There is nothing intrinsic or inherent about our way of life. I propose here that we re-tell ourselves history. It is just a myth. A story, fleeting in the wind, but also a rock to which we cling. If we truly want to change the future we must change the perceived ‘historical’ past, because these cultural mythologies mold our brains and perspectives. This is why academics and higher education professionals must join the public sphere in acting creatively and strategically with the myths that will form our futures.
They must cross boundaries, integrate themselves and participate in the globalized world, and be intimately involved with local communities and interdisciplinary curricula. This is truly the struggle for higher education.
Forrest Kentwell is a senior at Muhlenberg College.