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Luskin: Humanities Matter

02/28/12 7:55AM By Deborah Luskin
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(Host) Author and commentator Deborah Luskin teaches writing and literature to non-traditional students throughout Vermont. And while she admires the quantitative measures that dominate the sciences, she was reminded recently of how important the humanities are - even though they defy measure.

(Luskin) One day when I was making one of those carefully choreographed trips to town to complete a dozen errands, I didn't have the patience to pump my own gas, so I pulled into one of the few remaining full service stations still around. When the attendant returned to the car with my credit card he asked, "Do you work for the Vermont Humanities Council?"

I looked closely at the man and said, "Yes. How do you know?"

"I was your student," he said. "At Springfield ."

" Springfield " is code for the Southern State Correctional Facility where I used to teach writing to inmates through a partnership between the Community High School of Vermont and the Vermont Humanities Council. It was one of my all-time favorite jobs.

My students in jail were among the most engaged, grateful and willing students I've ever had. And this man, whose writing I remembered, confirmed what I knew: that the time spent writing made his time in jail valuable, both allowing and pushing him to think about his life. He was now working full-time and he'd just welcomed his sixth grandchild into the world. He looked well, solid, happy. I was pleased.

I've worked for the Vermont Humanities Council for more than twenty-five years, delivering literature-based programs in libraries, hospitals and alternative schools. The hospital and prison programs, in particular, reaffirm the importance of the humanities in our technological- and outcomes- obsessed culture.

The humanities require critical thinking and promote self-reflection - the very qualities that make us human. They require us to consider what it means to be human, and they help us make sense of a complicated world.

The humanities rarely receive the same support as the sciences, which rely on empirical methods that can be quantified in hard data. But recently, some humanities programs have started collecting outcomes-based data to prove their value. Healthcare workers who participate in literature-based humanities discussions about medical issues have reported higher job satisfaction, lower rates of burnout, better teamwork and greater empathy for their patients.

The same kind of data is not available for the humanities programs I've taught to teen parents or inmates. I can only cite anecdotal evidence - such as stories of young mothers reading stories about other young mothers coping with abuse, poverty and parental fatigue. Inevitably, these students realize that if storybook characters can overcome hardship, so can they.

I can also tell stories of incarcerated men writing poetry and articulating - often for the first time - their sorrows and dreams. And then there's the story of the mechanic who participated in my memoir writing class while serving time.

"That writing class," he said as I paid for my gas, "that class was the best thing about being in jail. It gave me a chance to think."
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