This piece was originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch opinion section on October 24, 2021.
October is one of my favorite months. There is Halloween, which, as a child and now childish parent, I’ve always thought should be a federal holiday. In Virginia there are intimations of sweater weather as we transition away from summer and imagine mornings and evenings of exhilarating crispness in the air. And, finally, October is a time to reflect on and celebrate the importance of creative expression and the human experience, because it is National Arts and Humanities Month!
While as director of Virginia Humanities, Virginia’s state humanities council, I focus on and think about the humanities well beyond the 31 days of this month, having this spotlight encourages us all to reflect on what these singularly human-centered fields of creation and thinking mean to us and society. While you probably know what the arts are, you may be hard-pressed to find a definition of humanities that rolls off your tongue.
You aren’t alone. Most people—even those who work in the field—will define the humanities by referring to the list of academic disciplines under its umbrella: anthropology, art history, history, language, law, literature, philosophy, religious studies, etc. And if you’ve followed any of the conversations about the humanities over the last decade—especially in higher education—you’ve probably heard they are in deep crisis. With steep declines in most humanities majors since the Great Recession of 2008, some administrations have shuttered their “less profitable” humanities programs. Perhaps this crisis comes from not understanding what the humanities are. Maybe it also comes from the perception that we—society in general—have a hard time discerning the return on an investment in disciplines that ask us to think and write critically without producing something to sell.
This is terrible and regrettable stuff, especially when we consider the specifically human-centered challenges we face now and that lie ahead of us. We live in an information age where, without thriving journalism, the difference between fact and fiction can be hard, and will become harder, to distinguish. We live in a country where the rural-urban divide is more focused on actual division than mutual dependence and respect. We live in an environment where our lives, livelihoods, and cultures are impacted by climate change and we will need to make decisions about what we should and shouldn’t save. We live in a time when we argue over what is or isn’t being taught in our children’s classrooms and what is and what is not commemorated in our public squares (is it “my” history, “your” history, or, our history?). We live in a nation where we fight over everything from public health policy to how we elect our leaders, sometimes with very tragic consequences. How can we deal with this ever-growing list of challenges that are pulling at the fabric of our nation? How do we all deal with one another?
I think the humanities can help. Not in what they are, but in what they do through their capacity to help us learn about ourselves and to learn about the people—past and present—around us.
Over the past few months, I’ve taken great and sometimes guilty pleasure in watching Ted Lasso, a streaming series in which the title character goes from American Midwest mid-major college football coach to coaching an English Premier League football club. Despite the odds against him—and there are many—he manages to win over most of his harshest skeptics, even if he doesn’t always win on the pitch. During one episode, after enduring a stream of belittling comments from another character, Ted turns to him and says, “Guys underestimated me my entire life. It used to really bother me. But then one day I was driving my little boy to school and I saw this quote by Walt Whitman and it was painted on the wall there. It said: ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’ And I liked that. So, I get back in my car and I’m driving to work, and all of a sudden it hits me. All them fellas that used to belittle me; not a single one of them were curious.” While this aphorism does not actually come to us from Walt Whitman, it does come from a place that drew me to the humanities from the start: a place of wonder that cultivates curiosity and stimulates questions about one’s own beliefs and assumptions and leads to thinking about what makes people around you tick. When we celebrate the humanities, we celebrate curiosity and all the questions to which it leads, questions on which our future may depend. This October, get curious.
Note: This clip contains mild profanity.
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