Thursday, September 4, 2014

Patrick Henry - How do you see the humanities growing and active in your life/work?

Patrick Henry, who lives in Waite Park, Minnesota, was professor of religion at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania (1967-84) and executive director of the Collegeville [MN] Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research (1984-2004). Since 2007, he has been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. He joined the Minnesota Humanities Center Board in 2013 and is especially interested in fostering its work in Central Minnesota.

Many years ago, a student paid me the highest compliment I ever received as a teacher: “Thank you for being a freedom fighter for me.” She had a quirky intelligence and a bountiful imagination, and felt cramped by academic convention. There was stuff she felt she couldn’t say because it didn’t “fit in.” She credited me with giving her room to move around.

Many years later, a friend who is a scholar gave me words that identify the way the humanities undergird and enhance freedom: “We need to become caretakers of one another’s stories.” For that student early in my career, I had become a caretaker of her story—a story that started before she came to Swarthmore, went into warp drive while she was there, and has continued in the decades since.

The Humanities Center taps into this deep well, where the humanities are not restricted to a particular set of disciplines (though I’m a champion of the fields traditionally identified as “humanities,” and am alarmed when they are dismissed as unaffordable luxuries, as though outdated in a 21st-century economy). The Humanities Center offers a humanities approach—the humanities are more a way of perceiving things—even of coming at things—than a set of things.

If we are to build in Minnesota a thoughtful, literate, and engaged society (the Humanities Center’s mission) — a society in which what unites us trumps what divides us — everyone must become a caretaker of everyone else’s story. What splits us is so often our caricature of “the other” whom we haven’t bothered to get to know.

The Humanities Center programming stems from these beliefs:
  • Veterans’ voices have more to say about community than about battle;
  • Teachers are more effective when they know the stories of their students;
  • All of us will know each other better if we talk, together, about the actual U.S. Constitution -- not shouting our preconceptions at each other; and
  • Absent narratives, such as those of American Indians, ought to become familiar to everyone.
I learned a motto of the scholarly life from my teacher, the late Jaroslav Pelikan, who received the John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity from the Library of Congress in 2004. It is spoken by Goethe’s Faust: “What you have received from your ancestors take now as task, for thus you will make it your own.” To this I would add: Include also what you receive from everyone around you, for in making it your own, you will experience a deeper, broader, richer freedom than you knew before.

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