What Is Context and Why Do We Need It?
For the longest time, I always felt that this trip to China would be different. I’ve been back to China a couple of times before to visit my grandparents and other relatives, and those times, I’ve always hated going to historical or cultural sites (for example, Tian’anmen Square and various museums). I thought they were boring because—c’mon—who wants to see a bunch of old buildings?
This time it’s really different. In the past when I came to China—even just three years ago—I would look forward to things like the ridiculously cheap shopping I could do. I didn’t care for anything else.
Now, I look forward to learning about history and culture. What happened?
I was inspired to write about this blog post after listening to a very interesting lecture. Two weeks ago, Robert J. Zimmer, President of the University of Chicago, came to Tsinghua University to deliver a lecture on the topic Universities and Cities: From Local to Global. He is the 176th speaker in the Tsinghua-hosted speaker series called Global Vision Lectures.
A part of his lecture was dedicated to answering the question: Why study the liberal arts? Why should we study the liberal arts, as opposed to enter into directed studies? Why should we study subjects like history, economics, and literature? Are they of any use practically? How can you make a difference in the world if you study these subjects?
I’ve also pondered about this before. In first year university, I would ask myself, why do I need to know about demand and supply curves? What’s all this theory going to help me with? When am I ever going to use a graph of consumer preferences and their budget constraints? Principles of Microeconomics was a mandatory first year course, so I did get through it despite questioning whether this knowledge would be handy.
At Zimmer’s lecture two weeks ago, everything clicked. Zimmer explained that both directed studies and liberal arts studies are important. While directed studies have to do with impact, the liberal arts have to do with context.
The first time I encountered the word “context” was in my grade 12 English class. We were preparing for some oral literature exams, and we had to talk about context in each presentation. What was the author’s life situation at the time the novel was written? How did societal issues affect the poet’s choice of theme? I thought the concept of context was quite interesting. It gave me a wider perspective on why, how, and when some pieces of literature were created. It connected these pieces of literature to the real world.
Having understood the concept of context, I connected what I learned in English class with the bigger picture; and I can’t agree more with what Zimmer said. Sometimes we go out and try to make an impact in the world. But how impactful can we be if we don’t understand context?
Last summer I volunteered at a rural community bank in Kenya for two months. It wasn’t until I finished Richard Dowden’s 600-page book Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles that I understood why I saw some things in Kenya, and why I didn’t see other things in Kenya. One of the most important takeaways from the trip was that I needed to study history more. Next time I go to Kenya—yup, I’ve promised myself and other people that I would be back sometime—things are going to be different. I’ll see things from a different perspective; I’ll do things with a new mindset; I’ll talk to people, keeping in mind what has happened in the past and how this history has impacted their lives.
You need context for impact. It’s definitely something to think about, for everyone. Right now in China, I still love the shopping and the food and all the fun things you can do here—I actually dyed my hair brown and got eyelash extensions! But what’s become more of a priority for me is to learn about the history, traditions, and culture of the country from which my roots come.