« Previous  
 Next »

Gilbert: Humanities And Cairo

02/22/11 5:55PM By Peter Gilbert
 MP3   Download MP3 

(HOST)  Commentator Peter Gilbert is the Executive Director of the Vermont Humanities Council.  He's  been thinking about what our fascination with daily developments in Cairo tells us about the importance of the humanities here in this country.

(GILBERT)  It's been widely asserted in recent months that there's a crisis in the humanities.  The humanities need to make a more persuasive case for a significant place in high school curricula, for financial support and student enrollments in colleges and universities, and for respect and support in society generally.  There are some in Washington who would like to cut funding dramatically for the National Endowment for the Humanities, or even abolish it altogether.

And yet at the same time books by people like historian David McCullough are read by millions, and films by Ken Burns enjoy huge audiences.  More people participate in book groups than perhaps ever before, and millions are researching their genealogy, asking who they are and where they came from.  People are even reading poetry - Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, and Rumi, to name just three popular poets.

It doesn't help that the word - humanities - is not widely used and a bit hard to get your arms around.  If you're thinking in terms of academic disciplines, the humanities include history, literature, ethics, philosophy, the study of religion, and art history.  But what do those liberal arts departments have in common?  They all help us better understand the human experience - of both individuals and groups.  The humanities are the tools of self-reflection.  History, for example, helps us understand not just the past, but also the present by giving us context and the ability to make helpful analogies between the present and the past.  Literature - fiction - sometimes helps us see the truth about ourselves and others more clearly than reality.

Do the humanities matter?  Very much so, and you can hear it in the use of that priceless word, humanity, which is, of course, what the humanities are about!  In 1937, what did the frantic reporter cry into the radio microphone when he witnessed the Zeppelin Hindenburg exploding into flames as it tried to land, and he thought of all those people on board who were dying right in front of him?  "Oh, the humanity!"  he cried.

Why have people been mesmerized by daily developments in Egypt?  Because we've been hoping it's a case of good triumphing, it reminds us of other revolutions, including our own, and it invokes our highest ideals and aspirations - all humanities subjects!  We've seen at least the possibility that radical change - dramatic progress - might come comparatively peacefully. It's an inspiring human story, and it's history in the making.  There are heroes - ordinary people exhibiting what we think of as extraordinary courage - people like twenty-nine-year-old Mohammed Said, who walked many miles to join the protest in Tahrir Square.  A freelance Egyptian journalist recently asked him why he was risking death.  He said, "We are fighting to regain our stolen humanity."

If one's humanity is worth dying for - one's sense of integrity as a human being, one's freedom as an individual or as a society - what, I would ask, is more important than trying to understand one's humanity more deeply, more broadly, more explicitly?
comments powered by Disqus
Supported By
Become an Underwriter | Find an Underwiter