Humanitarian Efforts

By John O. Harney

If you won the lottery tomorrow, how would you spend your time?

Being a good social scientist, Jack Cheng, a former UMass Boston art historian, said he would go to Walmart, the new Peoria, and ask that question. “Most of them, after they buy a house, after they buy a car … would go to the movies, they would read books, they would listen to music,” Cheng said. “They’d sit around cafes and talk about what the meaning of life was. They’d be doing philosophy. They’d travel and see historic places.”

In other words, they’d delve into the humanities.

Then, Cheng would remind the interviewees they could do all those things even if they didn’t win the lottery.

But while much of what we call the humanities can be enjoyed for free, most people are too busy working to spend time on these pleasures.

Humanities are under attack, or at least underappreciated. The American Academy of Arts & Sciences formed a Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2010 at the request of Congress. When the commission held its forum on the Humanities and Civil Society recently in Cambridge, Mass., Academy President Leslie C. Berlowitz, noted that one reason for the commission and the hearing was “STEM envy” (though the academy focuses on science and technology policy, as well as the humanities, arts and education).

A walled oasis in dense Cambridge, Mass., the academy itself oozes humanities. The perfect place to hatch national arguments for supporting the humanities and social sciences. But the worst time for it (as it always seems to be). Though the charge from Congress was to “recommend specific steps that government, schools and universities, cultural institutions, businesses and philanthropies can take to support and strengthen these areas of knowledge,” Berlowitz began with the sober reminder that any recommendations ultimately made by the commission couldn’t ask for money from the cash-strapped feds.

Much of the meeting went to the central questions: What are the humanities? What are they good for?

Former Supreme Court associate justice David Souter, a commission member, cited Learned Hand’s suggestion that over the door of every state house, city hall, courthouse, and schoolhouse in America, should be inscribed Oliver Cromwell’s words: “Consider that ye may be mistaken.”

Added Souter: “That is maybe the ultimate message the humanities gets across, ‘Ye may be mistaken.’ There may be room for another thought here. That’s what I’d like the guy in the shoe factory to know.”

Cheng, who directs a program named after baseball great Roberto Clemente (who died on a humanitarian mission to Nicaragua), noted that the late journalist Earl Shorris, who founded the Clemente program, interviewed prison inmates about why poor people were poor. “One inmate, Viniece Walker, told him it was because they lacked ‘the moral life of downtown’—meaning, she said, exposure to plays, museums, concerts, lectures, you know.”

Art history changes the way the students look at the city through the bus windows, added Cheng. “Humanities,” explained Cheng, “are a lens through which we can reflect on our lives, not just react to life.”

Short talks

Back in Cambridge, each forum participant had eight minutes to make their cases—a short speaking role for a good humanist.

Massachusetts Education Secretary Paul Reville reassured the crowd that the Bay State is the national leader in achievement, but faces nagging achievement gaps and little time in the traditional school day to close them, while instilling 21st century skills and lifelong learning. Just 20% of child’s waking hours are spent in school, he noted. He said we should reverse the current structure where the hours and place of learning are the constants, and the standard of learning is the variable. Reville warned that the gap is widening between what high-income and low-income people can make available to their children outside school, and noted that lack of youth employment, a great asset in the quest for out-of-school learning, wasn’t helping matters.

(To me, achievement and humanities are concepts that sit together awkwardly.)

Gary S. Katzmann, an associate justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, lamented that civic education, a cousin of the humanities, is lapsing under pressure of high-stakes testing and increasingly demanding educational requirements. Katzmann has been a supporter of the “Discovering Justice” program that teaches elementary and middle-school students about democracy and the rule of law. He cited studies showing that only one in seven Americans can identify a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, but two of three can identify a judge on American Idol (perhaps not surprising considering that Idol judges crave popularity, while justices seek anonymity.) Discovering Justice asked students to draw parallels between the Palmer Raids and post-9/11 civil liberties. The program asked elementary school students, as they progressed through school, questions ranging from: What is a rule? What’s a good reason to challenge rules? How do we solve problems? Students argue cases involving such issues as search and seizure of student lockers, or questions of silent protest, wearing armbands. Teachers love the way the program interweaves civics in their test-driven days, said Katzmann.

Max Latona, associate professor of philosophy at Saint Anselm College, talked about the show he co-hosts on New Hampshire Public Radio called The Socrates Exchange. (The host is Laura Knoy who interviewed me and economist Ross Gittell years ago when NEBHE’s New England Public Policy Collaborative floated the idea of a regionwide New England Olympics and regional lottery). On The Socrates Exchange, Knoy and a guest philosopher have a live call-in discussion and online follow-up. The philosopher does not lecture the audience as most talkmeisters do, but rather tries to answer like Socrates with a question and answer method meant to get people to reexamine their beliefs. The subjects of the 14 episodes have ranged from questions such as “Should Race Matter?” to “Is It Ever Right to Do What Is Wrong?” to “Is There One True Religion?” (A lot of people thought their own was.) Secondly, a program called HYPE (Hosting Young Philosophy Enthusiasts) encourages high school students to go to St. Anselm to discuss the topic. When a businesswoman on her way to work turns on the radio, and rather than hearing recent poll results, hears a discussion of whether money is important to human happiness, it’s a humanities thing, said Latona.

Humanities and healthcare

Lizz Sinclair, program director at the Maine Humanities Council, spoke of a Maine program helping health care workers combat burnout. Begun 15 years ago, “Literature and Medicine, Humanities at the Heart of Health Care,” is a reading and discussion program facilitated by a humanities scholar. The participants say they feel more connected to their work, understand their role better, increase their communication skills with families, patients, and their colleagues, and help increase their cultural understanding and sense of empathy. “Reading and discussing literary accounts of illness, death and human relationships in other places and times helps the participants see the world from the perspectives of others,” Sinclair said.

Loretta Grikis, a librarian who brought the Literature & Medicine program to Bay State Medical Center, in Springfield, Mass., said one doctor noted that “each of the members of the group left with a renewed commitment to see our patients as people, not diseases, and to think of their back stories.”

Public history

Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello who co-directs a Franco-American public history project at Salem State University in Salem, Mass., noted that the latest immigrants to Salem—Dominicans—live exactly where earlier groups of Franco-Americans lived. “In addition to developing walking tours and maps of the geography of Franco-American Salem,” said Duclos-Orsello, “we’ve begun exploring fruitful partnerships that we can use to connect these oral histories through bridging projects, creating interactive digital maps that link certain places to these different immigrant stories, screening these videos, and holding discussions about the meaning of immigration and trans-nationalism, and hyphenated or ethnic identities at local pubs, and with the Salem Senior Center, between Franco-American and Dominican elderly groups, two groups who do not in fact have much connection with one another.”

Humanities, said Duclos-Orsello, teach us how to develop and ask questions, how to tell and listen to stories with passion, how to craft arguments.

Noting that more than half of humanities funding comes from tax dollars, David Tebaldi, executive director of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, said the humanities help people “to be better citizens, to think critically, to understand and appreciate cultural traditions and differences, and to form more meaningful attachments to their communities.”

Stuart Parnes, director of the Connecticut Humanities Council, noted that the economically polarized state can be united through reading. “We’re helping to narrow that gap by opening up the world of books and ideas to children and families,” he said. “Igniting a love for reading and the young and the not-so-young is a critical step toward success in school, of workplace, and the changing world we live in.

Places that matter

The most important aspect of humanities is creating great places that matter, said Kip Bergstrom, deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development. Bergstrom’s portfolio ranges from arts and culture to tourism, but it all comes down to “the idea of place-making, because you use art, history, culture and tourism to make places which are magnets for talent, which is the key fuel of the innovation economy.”

“In the throes of a jobless recovery from the Great Recession, it’s fashionable to think that economic development is all about jobs. It’s not,” said Bergstrom (who was the first student at Harvard Graduate School of Design to specialize in economic development). “It’s at least equally about making great places. … Our most important work as a species is to create places that matter, and economic development can either contribute to that, or diminish it, depending on how it’s done.”

Bergstrom noted that the first “public art” was painted on cave walls 40,000 years ago, and the same brain that did those cave paintings can now find the higgs boson particle. “So from primitive cave painting to a new understanding of the universe and its origins, there’s one brain with its unique capacity for pattern recognition and conceptual thinking, one unified creative process that is the same for the best of our art and science.” Art still has ability to transform something dark and scary into something vibrant and inviting, he said. “Mobile young talent, the lifeblood of innovative companies like to live in cool places, and that art is one of the cheapest and fastest way to create cool places.”

Not all old buildings are works of art, Bergstrom said, but they have a story that helps us see where we’re going. Too often, buildings are preserved, but the story is lost, he said. Unlike in the Midwest, in New England, “you can sleep in history, work in history, eat in history, hold your most significant public and private events in history. Our ancestors and their stories are always with us here.” Connecticut’s slogan Qui transtulit sustinet translates loosely into “where the immigrant thrives.” “For over 350 years, immigrants have prospered in Connecticut and still do. Their stories can be found in many places, but especially in the mill buildings in the 19th century, and in the ethnic, urban neighborhoods, towns, and villages that still thrive today. Many of our cities have a higher percentage of foreign-born than they did in the early 1900s, at the peak of industrialization and European immigration.” Indeed, Connecticut is experiencing a “brain gain” thanks to immigration.

Sally Whipple directs Connecticut’s Old State House through the Connecticut Public Affairs Network. The night of the hearing at the academy, the network’s new “Barstools to Ballots” was scheduled to offer a happy hour program to “explore the importance of early taverns in colonial life as part of important political discussion. Then a historian and entrepreneur and a state representative will talk with the audience about modern equivalence of colonial taverns.”

China goes back to the future

Former Supreme Court Associate Justice Souter noted that China is bringing back the study of the humanities. Why? “Because humanities, and particularly classics, help with creativity, which the Chinese are not good at,” said Souter. “The case that was made for it there, was the case that the study of the humanities, and particularly the classics—not only Chinese, but Western—are thought to be essential to the creativity in technology, which China does not at the present time demonstrate. China is extraordinarily good at replicating. It is not extraordinarily good at creating in the first place. And the impetus to return to the teaching of the humanities and the classics in particular, is a response to the needs to create traditions in which the Chinese creativity is going to equal ours.”

Bergstrom pointed out that China is also investing it art to make its great cities distinctive. “They are worried that they’re making all these cities, and they’re all going to be the same,” said Bergstrom. “Art has the potential to make them distinctive.”

“For diversity of people, a precondition is tolerance,” he said. “Tolerance isn’t hanging with people you like. Tolerance is being willing to live next to somebody you hate, and whose ideas, nonetheless, cross-pollinate with yours. If you have that kind of tolerance in a place, that is a place that’s an explosively innovative place. So, even before diversity is tolerance. And they’re both canons of the humanities,” said Bergstrom.

Humanities for underserved

David Richards, director of the University of Maine Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan, Maine, leads a book discussion series at the Somerset Jail, in one of the most impoverished counties in Maine. The book group discusses “the power and pleasure of ideas.”

Tikaram Acharya of Bhutan told of his family living for 17 years in a refugee camp before moving to New Hampshire, where about 250 resettled Bhutanese families live, mostly in Laconia, Manchester and Concord. “Many people died, many new babies came up, so that was kind of balanced, but on average, there are 130,000 in the refugee camp.”

Courtney Marshall teaches English and Women’s Studies at University of New Hampshire, and volunteers with the connections program at the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility, which is in Berlin, NH. An African-American (in a gathering almost as white as other New England civic meetings), Marshall said one man told her “going to prison was wonderful, because now he has a chance to read as much as he wants. He said that before he went to prison, he was very involved, and working, and raising his family. And now that he’s there, he has a friend from the outside, who sends him magazine subscriptions.” Added Marshall: “One of the wonderful things about our program is when they get the books they can record themselves reading the books. And they can send the recording and the book home to their children.”

Marshall said a recent theme for the book group at the jail was grit. “And so we talked for a month about what does grit mean, and how does grit serve you when you’re incarcerated? But also, how did misplaced grit, sort of lead them down the wrong road, as some of them talked about.”


Returning to Cheng’s research into how Walmart shoppers view humanities, former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen asked how the forum could help the public and Congress understand why humanities is as important as the more “testable” STEM subjects.

Reville responded that Massachusetts now asks a lot of open-ended questions on tests—that the tests may actually be worth teaching to. “A question for eighth graders was, think of a novel you’ve read recently. Think of a secondary character in that novel, and think of why it was important to the author to include that secondary character in the telling of the story. I would say to parents, I don’t know about you, but I’d be happy to have my children talk to that question, because to answer that question, you’ve got to be able to be analytical, to think critically, and to write expressively.”

John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education.

Related Posts:

For earlier NEJHE pieces by Paul Reville, see:

Translating Education Reform into Action

Coming Soon to a College Near You: Accountability

For earlier NEJHE pieces by Kip Bergstrom, see:

Opportunity New England: A Plan to Build Regional Success on Innovative Individuals

Will New England Become Global Hub or Cul de Sac?

This piece was cross-posted at JOH NEJHE.


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