Jefferson Lecture: Harvard Poet Says History Is Not Essential to a Liberal Education

Roundup: Talking About History

Kelly Field, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (May 7, 2004):

A humanities education should focus on language, literature, and the arts, not on history and philosophy, said the Harvard University professor Helen Vendler, who delivered the annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities on Thursday night.

"The arts are too profound and too far-reaching to be left out of our children's patrimony," said Ms. Vendler, according to an advance copy of her remarks."The arts have a right, within our schools, to be as serious an object of study as molecular biology or mathematics." The Jefferson Lecture is the highest honor the National Endowment for the Humanities awards a scholar. Recipients are given a $10,000 prize as well as a rare, high-profile forum in which to speak on any topic they choose.

In her speech, Ms. Vendler, a prolific poetry critic, argued that the arts teach students more about humanity and their national heritage than either philosophy or history, offering them a truer portrayal of"the way we are and were, the way we actually live and have lived."

The arts, like geography and history," confer a patina on the natural world," Ms. Vendler added. They lend significance to a field in Gettysburg or a rustic bridge in Lexington, sensitizing us to our surroundings.

Without art, she said, we would be like the sleepwalkers of Wallace Stevens's 1943 poem"Somnambulisma," wandering through our lives"like automata, unconscious of the very life we were living." Ms. Vendler used images from the poem in the title of her speech,"The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar."

American schools, she concluded, will produce more well-rounded students once they teach an equal balance of science and art.

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