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Explaining the Humanities (1/2)

Belle.png“If, because of cutbacks and lack of support from the federal government, literature and the arts and other aspects of the humanities become just parlor musings of the wealthy, we would have made a huge mistake,” Dartmouth’s president, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, said in an interview. “Literature and the arts should not only be for kids who go to cotillion balls to make polite conversation at parties.” President Kim in the Boston Globe, November 8, 2010.

Geez, where does our President get this stuff? Cotillion balls? Polite conversation? Leaving aside his negative stereotyping of people of means, it sounds like Jim Kim thinks the Humanities are nothing more than a subject that southern belles chat about at a springtime do while sipping juleps: “Good gracious, Sissy, that man Monet’s waterlilies do remind me so of Daddy’s pond on our plantation.” Is it Kim’s goal that everyone, rich or poor, be educated to make smart talk? Oh my.

It’s high time we issued a fatwa on fatuousness and explained what the Humanities truly are. Obviously, our President has not yet taken the time to ask the same question of members of the Dartmouth faculty.

Look at the word itself for a clue. The Humanities, writ large, are the study of human beings in all of their awful, awesome and contradictory glory — but not via the analytical marshaling of great masses of digital data, as in the Social Sciences. Rather, humanists, using analogue means, seek to understand the varied aspects of man’s nature and the panoply of his sentiments: good, evil, right, wrong, beauty, joy, passion, hatred, love, faith, anger, courage and hope.

The subject is as elusive and complex as the number of people who have lived in human history, and humanists go about their work in various oblique ways: by looking at literature in its diverse forms, language, painting and the arts, film, music, history, anthropology, religion and through philosophical inquiry. In seeking to become learned in human nature, scholars of all ages find ways to ask themselves who they are and how they can live thoughtfully examined lives. The task is a demanding one because, almost by definition, there are no right answers to any humanistic question, though some are much righter than others.

Got it, Jim? And how are the Humanities doing at Dartmouth? We’ll see tomorrow. Hint: Pretty well, thank you.

Note: See the following sites for other definitions of the Humanities: The National Endowment for the Humanities, Stanford University, National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, and MassHumanities.

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