This summer marks the fifth anniversary of The Public Humanist, a group blog published on the Valley Advocate’s web site. It has featured the essays of more than 60 contributing writers, most of whom are humanities scholars teaching in colleges and universities in Massachusetts—all with a passion for bringing their research, teaching and fields of interest to a popular readership.
The blog is an ongoing project managed by Mass Humanities, the state humanities council for Massachusetts, affiliated with the National Endowment for the Humanities. Among other things, Mass Humanities gives grants to nonprofit organizations in Massachusetts for the development and implementation of “public humanities programs”: usually these are in-person, interactive events in a large variety of formats that feature humanities disciplines: history, literature, philosophy, and political science, for example.
The blog project began as a means of sharing the intellectual riches that the many scholars and project directors who have connections to Mass Humanities bring to the public square. What follows is a sampling from the essays on a wide range of topics, chosen to illuminate the intimate connection between the humanities and daily life. Enjoy, and stay tuned; The Public Humanist will continue publishing scholarly but accessible voices on a range of relevant topics.
To read the full versions of these essays, please follow the linked post titles.
Public Humanist Editor &
Senior Program Officer
What are the costs of specialization? One cost is that the areas of learning that we call “disciplines” are now exciting only to those inside of them; often, they even fail to inspire insiders for their whole career. The massive expansion of universities in recent decades has made it possible to produce hundreds of experts on Victorian England. They can now hold their own conferences and sustain their own journals. But who benefits and who cares? Even the specialists are suffering from doubts about who their audience is and what their role in society as a whole is. A tone of self-abnegation and cynicism is palpable among many academics today.” —Dan Gordon
“Would I have to ride at the back of the bus?” my beautiful brown-skinned son asked me as we read Faith Ringgold’s If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks. Rory was six at the time and my heart broke as I contemplated how to answer this question. Honestly was the only option.
“Yes,” I said.
“But you could sit wherever you wanted?” he asked.
“Yes. But I wouldn’t want to ride on a bus like that,” I said, perhaps dishonestly skirting the idea that it would be very unlikely that he and I would have even existed as mother and son in that time and place, and deciding not to acknowledge that most white people of that time, place and generation were not supportive of the Montgomery bus boycott, to say the least.
“Because you’d want to sit next to me?”
“Absolutely,” I responded.
When I originally offered to teach an autobiography-writing workshop in my father’s assisted living residence, I did it with the idea of giving people “something to do.” I hoped to give people a bit more as well: a mental challenge, a sense of accomplishment, a deeper sense of community.
What I didn’t expect was the fact that I would learn more than I would teach. This is the best group of students I have ever worked with. They listen to one another’s work with affection, respect, and delight. They are the best class I have ever taught. I have never had to convince them that writing matters. —Lucia Knoles
When discussing topics [in a college classroom] that reflect feminism’s basic tenets, everyone generally is down with the program, as long as I don’t give it a name. But if I call anything “feminism,” almost all will turn away. And indeed, only very recently have I come to refer to things I do and say as specifically feminist, even though for years I have been teaching classes on women and power, come from a family of powerful, “I’ll shoot your damn balls off if you cross me” women, and have generally held as gospel the notion that women are equal to (or better than most) men. —Marisa Parham
I thought I’d already heard it all, so I was surprised at how suddenly raw I felt, reading what one vocational-technical high school student had written on a yellow sticky note: ‘Your [sic] never going to make it.’ I guessed that she was quoting the words of her shop teacher.
The question that puzzles my students is not, what do Arabs want? Rather, what puzzles them is, what does the United States want? U.S. policy is totally mysterious to them thanks to the dissonance between words and actions, to the evocation of “principle,” and to its selective and cynical application. Are they anti-American? No, they are adept at distinguishing individuals and cultures from governmental policies. But they certainly are critical of the effects of American policies in the region. And here it is the United States that refuses to listen. —Mary Wilson
The history of poverty policy in the United States, as Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello eloquently recounts, is influenced by a strong impulse to make the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. The most recent wave of this dogma arouse as part of the growth of neoliberalism that began in the late 1970s. It reared its head in a variety of forms, including efforts by policy analysts to distinguish between the needy and the “truly disadvantaged” and as an attack on affirmative action programs. This impulse to sort the deserving/undeserving poor was ultimately the guiding principle behind the Clinton administration’s efforts to “end welfare as we know it.”—Kristin Bumiller
Our ideas about writing and writers embrace two polarities: the image of the visionary who seeks solitude and emerges from it after a time with his revelations written as if on stone tablets, and the writer who has to leave the office of his newspaper or magazine by the back door to avoid avid, demanding fans. Traditionally, patronizing or even contemptuous language was used for the latter category; many serial novelists could have been described as “hack writers” because, like Dickens and Prus, they wrote to make a living. But—contrary to an old idea that only those who wrote without the spur of financial necessity wrote well—nothing could be more of a misnomer than to refer to the great serialists as hacks, either in the concepts behind such works as Bleak House or Vanity Fair, or in their execution. —Stephanie Kraft
Evaluation is an inevitable part of serious cultural dialogue–attempts to minimize judgment end up pushing exchanges about the arts into the realm of polite publicity. –Bill Marx
FILM AND TELEVISION
Most people don’t realize that romance novels—fiction written by women (approximately 95% of the writers are women), for women (90.5% of the readers are women)—form the foundation of an economic powerhouse. The statistics are staggering: according to the Romance Writers of America, romance fiction generated $1.37 billion in sales in 2011 (compare that with $759 million for religion/inspirational, $682 million for mystery, $559 million for sci-fi, and $455 million for classic literary fiction). Romance novels have long held the largest share of the consumer book market in America, and many people in the publishing industry have told me that romance fiction is keeping the rest of book publishing afloat. —Laurie Kahn
With this increasing amount of work from independents flooding the market to join the network fare, one important role that needs to be filled as new models of media consumption grow is that of the curator. A YouTube future seemingly operates without one, but for many (namely me) that is just too much material to sort through. Trusted programmers, curators, scholars and critics will be in demand in this new era to help us choose, understand, and appreciate what we’re watching. —Sara Archambault
How many of you have groaned your way through cringe-worthy reenactments in history documentaries? Let me see a show of hands in early 19th-century gauntlets. Do you have any idea how much it costs to rent those gauntlets? If you throw them down, please remember to have them dry-cleaned before returning them to the costume department.
Recently I’ve been dragged into the treacherous world of history documentary reenactments, not from a desire to ruin my reputation, but by hard and cruel necessity. The need is simply this—sometimes there is just nothing else to show. —Larry Hott
PHILOSOPHY AND CONTEMPORARY LIFE
It seems to me our lives do not unfold solely or even primarily in response to principles or conviction. We’re embedded in communities and traditions that substantially guide our choices, and we’re embodied beings adapted to one another and to our environments in such a way that we unfurl according to forces and factors that do not reach the threshold of reflection. This seems the glorious truth about us, and it is a source of resilience, resolve, and tranquility. —Joe Cruz
In reading the diary that a widow in my town kept during the years 1855-1873, I became lost in a world I never knew existed. Yet it had existed, and right up the road from my own house! She was writing everything down a hundred years before I was born. Her shopping lists and accounts of conversations with neighbors, her laments and her personal joys grabbed me and pulled me right into her home with her and her three grown children. And the language was filled with… new words! She was buying brimstone and salaratus. Why? She rode home by sleigh from Huntington on a beautiful moonlit night. She related wagon accidents, bee-hunts, whortleberrying and funerals. Sometimes she said shillings and other times cash money. Routinely, her son banked and un-banked the house in the fall and spring. He tightened the bed cords and moved the stoves to and from the parlor. She “balled up” butter and bartered with it at the local store for candle wicking and oak nut galls with which to make ink. She watched “the iron horses go by!” Because of her diary, Lydia, her family, her neighbors will all be remembered and admired. —Barbara Pelissier
The truth is that many, if not most, combat veterans, who have followed all the rules, are haunted more by what they have done than by what they have endured. Those who work with veterans to help heal their inner, invisible wounds know that the deepest and most intractable PTS (post-traumatic stress) has its roots in what veterans perceive as the evil they have done and been a part of. They all too often see themselves as criminals. But how can it be criminal, we may ask, to serve your country in a just cause and a necessary conflict? Here we may find some simple but useful light in a well-worn concept-necessary evil. If war is at times a necessary evil, does that make it any less evil? I suggest we let our veterans make that call. —Bob Meagher
In light of the traumas the US and the Iraqis suffered in this “preemptive invasion” there has, not surprisingly, been little fanfare accompanying the US withdrawal. There were no “Mission Accomplished” banners greeting the US troops on the Kuwaiti border or American flags being triumphantly rubbed over the faces of fallen Saddam Hussein statues as in 2003. The days of that hubristic moment when Bush landed on the aircraft carrier and the White House spoke threateningly of invading Iran next have been replaced by a more sober assessment of the real costs in lives and gold that wars take. —Brian Glyn Williams
Some people ask, why point the finger at people in the past—they lived in their world, they made decisions that were fine on their moral compass. Take those hat-braiding women all across Massachusetts, for instance. They surely were in pretty dire need of cash, unlike rich, exploiting slave-owners. And did they even know the destination of these palm leaf hats? I respond to that —pointing out that we don’t know much about their moral compass until we study the past—that we can learn a lot about what we feel is right and wrong —studying the decisions of people in the past.—Pleun Bouricius
The urge to perform, for me, is an urge to return to the place I feel most at home, and most alive. It’s extremely hard to get there. It’s ever-elusive and risky. The moment you take it for granted, it will disappear. If you lose focus, if you don’t commit yourself fully, if you haven’t trained, rehearsed or memorized enough, if you stop trusting yourself and those you share the stage with, if your ego overshadows the work of the art itself—any of these will take you quickly down a path of, at best mediocrity, or at worst, the emotional torture of knowing when you’re bombing on stage. —Andrea Assaf
I personally feel that it is a social advantage not to be Christian in America. We speak so much of the advantages of being in the majority and not the advantages of being in a minority (in my case, being Jewish). The sense of being excluded and different can be a positive experience. Non-Christian children gain a sense of distance from social customs: they become critical observers. The really creative people are the ones who feel like outsiders. If Christians wish to make me an outsider without physically or economically harming me, I can only thank them for making it so easy for me to raise my family in an atmosphere of non-conformity. —Dan Gordon
ROLE OF THE HUMANITIES IN PUBLIC POLICY
When the perspectives of history, literature, philosophy and the other humanities disciplines are brought to bear on a controversial social issue, a broader context is created within which a dispassionate and reasoned exchange of views can occur. Unrecognized connections between the issue at hand and other important issues are revealed; ways the controversy has been resolved (or not) in other times or in other places are presented for comparison; the underlying values at stake in the controversy are exposed, and alternative means for preserving those values can be imagined. —David Tebaldi