In defense of the humanities

tags: education, the humanities, history crisis

Thumbnail Image -  By dbking - IMG_6870, CC BY 2.0

Chairman Adams—Bro—ladies and gentlemen, good evening. I find it difficult to express what a singular honor being asked to give this lecture is for me. The humanities in general and the NEH specifically have made my life better in immeasurable ways.  For nearly all of my professional life—thirty-six of your impressive half century--I have sought the rigorously earned imprimatur of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which in turn has permitted me to practice--and I hope refine--my art, my craft of historical documentary filmmaking. Even when we did not enjoy support from the NEH, we nevertheless, on every project, adopted its strict guidelines, employing the best scholars at every juncture of our multi-year process, applying difficult, critical thinking to a medium more often content with superficial narrative and sentimental emotions.  

In a larger sense, the humanities help us all understand almost everything better--and they liberate us from the myopia our media culture and politics impose upon us. Unlike our current culture wars, which have manufactured a false dialectic just to accentuate otherness, the humanities stand in complicated contrast, permitting a nuanced and sophisticated view of our history, as well as our present moment, replacing misplaced fear with admirable tolerance, providing important perspective, and exalting in our often contradictory and confounding manifestations. Do we contradict ourselves? We do!

It is in fact the glue, like civics--that hugely misunderstood sub-set of the humanities--that allows us to understand precisely how things work, how to get things done. All things: even science, technology, engineering and math, as well as our shared history, culture, politics, and, as always, the spirit–expanding arts. At a time when our ancient tribal instincts sometimes overrun our civilized impulses, the humanities stand as an ethical watchdog, guarding our legitimate progress from retreat, repelling trespassers. They are an indelible reminder of our common bonds.

But somehow, in recent times, the humanities have been needlessly scapegoated in our country by those who continually benefit from division and obfuscation. Let me make it perfectly clear: the United States of America is an enduring humanistic experiment. That fact does not preclude or exclude--indeed it is the exact opposite of those limiting words--the full expression of religious freedom. In fact, it strengthens an understanding, promoted by our founders, of tolerance and inclusion. What could be more faith based than that? Where we get into trouble is when our arrogant certainty suggests that only one point of view, perhaps only one religion, is “right.” “Liberty,” Judge Learned Hand once said--and can there be a better name for a jurist than Learned Hand--“Liberty is never being too sure you’re right.” Doubt--healthy, questioning, experimenting, perfecting doubt--is critical to the humanities and the health of our still fragile Republic.

In our media and political culture, we don’t disagree, we demonize, condemning us to a kind of partisan purgatory.  Our trade is now tirade, but that righteous indignation only lasts until the next drug commercial for diseases we didn’t know we could have--restless leg syndrome?  Dry eyes?  The humanities provide us high ground and perspective to see with clear eyes these fads and trends and unnecessary conflicts for what they are.  Yet we still seem allergic to civil discourse—and just plain civility—which could lift us out of our dyspeptic tantrums. ...

Read entire article at The National Endowment for the Humanities

comments powered by Disqus