The storyteller plays a pivotal role in old Irish tradition. These wanderers would travel from village to town across the Emerald Isle, singing, entertaining and carrying on the strong oral tradition of “telling a good story”. People would gather around and be captivated by the silvery threads these masters would weave, blending legend with literature, and fact with fantasy. People of all ages, and stations in life, would be drawn in by these travelling troubadours.
The modern storyteller walks among us still, but perhaps with a diminished role. A recent article in the Washington Post notes that since 2008, the study of the humanities has declined by approximately 25%. The Great Recession caused parents and students to focus their studies on areas that would provide the quickest path to a job. That led to the rise of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) acronym, and to big jumps in majors in these fields.
Looking at my university years, I began studying Liberal Arts, then switched to business (counselled to have a degree that would get me a job), then finished with a second major in Spanish. It was the Spanish program that filled in a lot of context that was missing from my business studies.
In business class we spoke of inflation, but studying modern European history and learning of Germany’s hyperinflation gave the term meaning and feeling. The Spanish Civil War in 1936, followed by Germany’s growing industrial machine, which led to World War II, illustrated the effects of distorted growth, protectionism, followed by the effects of war and subsequent peace treaties. The punitive peace treaties of WW I were largely a disaster, but those of WW II, with US leadership, were far more constructive and successful, leading to the economic prosperity we enjoy today.
Where history tells the story, our arts, literature, and now film complete the story with colour. Picasso and Goya painted the graphic horrors of the Spanish Civil War, illustrating the fear that dominated that period, while the playwright Lorca portrayed characters of the period in dramatic shades of dark or light. After the Civil War, Spain went into a virtual economic hibernation until Franco died in the 1970s. Though the country has emerged with several strong industrial names, it remains in the shadows of its European neighbours as a result of the Franco period.
Reaching back even farther in time, we see that Spain in the late 1400s was in a period of risk taking and investment, which led to Columbus “discovering” the New World. This “moon shot” investment occurred when Queen Isabella financed Columbus with her jewels which then led to one of the most prosperous periods in Spanish history. Looking back on the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and later with the English and French incursions, provide context to help us piece together the cultural mosaic of these continents that we see today. History and culture can also help us understand regional disparities, while also gaining insight to the various economic strengths and weaknesses that now prevail in the Americas.
Since before the time of the traveling troubadours there has doubtless been the constant struggle between obtaining meaningful training for a vocation versus studying the “arts”. There has even been the recent emergence of the term “social studies” which appears to distill and diminish the various areas of humanities into one general pool. This, while placing greater emphasis on the STEM subjects. It is what the guardians of our children’s education have decided, and what many parents have demanded.
But according the Washington Post article, participants at a recent conference of Central Bankers from around the world (they who occupy perhaps the most linear of jobs) noted that storytellers were very much needed to effectively communicate their important message. Australia’s Central Banker noted that “it’s important to not just talk about numbers, coefficients, and rules, but stories that people can understand – stories show how policies are contributing to economic welfare and the things that really matter to people”. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Australia has not had a recession in 25 years. Jamaica’s Central Bank has opted to hire a reggae band to communicate the message that “inflation is a wicked ting…”.
The same article noted that students graduating with degrees in humanities often lagged in getting jobs at first when compared with the STEM graduates. The latter group were clearly better prepared with skills in immediate demand. But the humanities graduates were more adaptable, and by the time the STEM graduates were looking to make a career change their skills were outdated, whereas the humanities graduates were already working their way into higher paying jobs. By age 40 the humanities graduates have caught up.
While there is always a need for technicians to graph and chart the data, being able to interpret the information and effectively communicate it is equally, if not more important. Developing and implementing these skills are vital in helping people understand situations in a broader context, and in a more meaningful and relevant manner. There is always a need for people with the knowledge and skills to tell a good story.