I'll soon reach my term limit on the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Humanities Center. These years have been wonderfully gratifying for me. The Center's vision of a connected, curious, and compassionate society is what I've been committed to personally and professionally most of my life. A while back I was asked this question: What's your understanding of the humanities, and why do you care about them? Here's what I answered.
Humanities says to me faces and voices.
It’s disciplines, of course, such as philosophy and music and literature (in many languages) and religion and art and history, but because it’s about faces and voices—about people, in short—it spills over the bounds of the traditional humanities disciplines. The Roman playwright Terence said it best, almost twenty-two centuries ago: "I am a human being; I consider nothing that is human alien to me."
Even earlier than Terence, Socrates gave shape and direction to the humanities when he gathered the curious, the skeptical, the doctrinaire, the bombastic, the reticent, you name it, and engaged them in conversation that relentlessly probed and critiqued their certainties. Socrates’s “I know nothing” (not at all the same as “I don’t know anything”) is the singularity from which the Big Bang of the humanities emerged.
Because the humanities are about faces and voices, they are constantly changing, developing, doing somersaults, trekking along Möbius strips, arriving where they started and knowing the place for the first time, as Eliot puts it in “Little Gidding.” Terence lived in a culture in which half of what was human—women—didn’t count for much, and indeed it’s only recently that feminism has worked its magic on the humanities—calling them to be true to their nature.
That’s one reason I care about the humanities—they have the capacity for self-correction. The world is always in need of refashioning, rejuvenating, repairing (the Jewish ideal of tikkun olam could be the Humanities Center’s motto!).
And here’s another reason I care about the humanities. They function across the spectrum of human activity. Socrates mixed it up in the public square. Emily Dickinson hardly ever ventured out of the house. Still, her “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” is a transposition of Socrates’s “I know nothing” into another key, and helps explain why the humanities are an arena for so much discussion and controversy. “Slant” suggests a whole slew of different angles, and just as there are many geometries in mathematics, so there are many geometries of meaning in literature and history and all the rest. The humanities keep conversation going.
And here’s a third reason. The humanities remind us that not all the wise are among the living. This is an especially critical lesson in America, where the self-made person, “a new order of the ages” (as says the Great Seal of the United States on our one-dollar bills), and Henry Ford’s “History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition” are guideposts. The humanities carry a brief for the dead—a brief that is in fact amicus curiae for us, the living.
So: I care about the humanities because they give identity and voice to everyone—which is not only fair, but is also to my immense benefit. They remind me that the world is much bigger than I thought; it’s a place where I can—as W. H. Auden puts it—“see rare beasts and have unique adventures.” Additionally: the humanities have the power of self-correction; they keep us talking; and they break the bondage of the present.