Thursday, October 30, 2014

Michael Garcia - How will the humanities help lead America toward a brighter future?

Michael Garcia is President and CEO of the Duluth Children’s Museum and he retires at the end of 2014 after 10 years in this position. Garcia has dedicated his career to the arts and humanities and their importance in the education of every child. He has provided consulting and volunteer services to numerous cultural institutions across the country. Garcia lives in Sawyer, Minnesota.

I cannot comment on the importance of the humanities without paying tribute to my high school humanities teacher, Wayne Slater. As a student at Roosevelt High School in Virginia, Minnesota, I enjoyed two semesters of English electives in survey courses on the humanities. Mr. Slater brought life to the slides, records, and writing during those affluent years in public education. I, for one, benefited from his passion for teaching.

For many of us growing up in remote areas of America the concept of travel even to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, much less the National Gallery or Prado Museum, was only a dream. Typical of that time, I did not see Lake Superior just 55 miles south until I was 15. Imagine that today if you can.

However, growing up in relative isolation, exposure to the humanities in its many forms helped shape and define who I was and what I would ultimately do in my lifetime. From my parents came a love of music through the DECCA hi-fi system that bellowed out the sounds of Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and other great jazz artists. The fantastic proscenium stage in our high school was where students honed their skills for the state student one-act play competitions or the school musical. I was inspired by slides of the Monet Water Lilies and The White Girl, which I eventually visited years later at the National Gallery. The humanities provide vision, hope, and aspiration for all and we must not take this for granted.

Growing up in a household of severe domestic violence, at a time when there were no shelters and a code of silence and secrecy was the community norm, theater arts gave me the personal outlet to imagine a reality outside of the confines of my experience. Playing a role in the student play “The Man in the Bowler Hat,” with my name on a program and footlights and a follow-spot, I had a context for creating an alternative reality. This allowed me not only to survive but to thrive.

For some, in moments of deepest despair, an element of what we collectively recognize as “the humanities” provides a life-line that is responsible for providing hope to hang on. And yes, in spite of the violent environment that haunts me to this day, I am fortunate. I did survive, and I have made a lifetime out of advocating for the arts and humanities. We cannot shape the future without looking at the past. The humanities offer the best pathway for understanding history and our collective past.

Many say “these are desperate times” or “our children are at risk.” While I do not disagree, I believe that these are “different times” and that every child is a potential “child at risk.” Assuring access to active participation in the humanities is one of the best investments we can make for our children and the future of our society.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Timothy K. August - Why do the humanities matter in today's world?

Timothy K. August is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Stony Brook University in New York. He recently received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, and has publications appearing in MELUS, Mizna, The Blackwell Postcolonial Encyclopedia, and the Journal of Asian American Studies. He is currently working on a book manuscript that examines the emergence of refugee aesthetics.

In the digital age nearly everyone is an author, researcher, and reader. How we engage with these three positions, in many ways, defines our roles as both national and global citizens. The unparalleled amount of choice that technology provides gives the impression that we are constantly involved in an active and lively dialogue with a limitless constituency of others.

Yet as David Mura reminded us in his October 9th post, even though we have been gifted a golden ticket to a public sphere filled with an immeasurable amount of intellectual and cultural resources, this dialogue often remains remarkably one-sided. In practice, context, histories, and identities are constructed, which determine how we speak and naturalize the ways that we listen.

Humanistic inquiry interrogates this relationship between the producer, the object, and the consumer. As a collective review, the humanities can be the champion of all that is not so easily quantified, and can speak truth to power—particularly when power needs to hear it. While it is understood that the humanities attend to matters of pleasure, the imagination, and beauty, through critical evaluation we also provide necessary checks and balances to both public and private institutions that seek to shape our values and habits.

My goal as an educator is to reverse the trend of, in the words of Henry Giroux, “collapsing education into training.” My students must leave a course having developed a critical humanistic perspective that comprehends: 1) The process by which we come to value certain objects and feelings over others, 2) How power operates through our everyday lives, and 3) How our experience is formed so that we come to imagine we belong to particular communities.

A humanities education slows us down by engaging thought problems that challenge our received modes of thinking. Students who go through this schooling emerge more sensitive to multiple perspectives, understand how and why arguments are made, and are able to make decisions when facing contingency and uncertainty.

However with funding for humanities programs being bled away by reforms favoring programs that instrumentally promote commerce, this form of knowledge formation is being forcibly marginalized. The very act of devoting an entire month of blog posts to justifying the humanities’ presence in today’s world, speaks to how deeply we have learned to internalize that the humanities should be constantly under review.

Considering the massive undertaking the humanities is tasked with—the analysis of culture, identity, difference, representation, space, bodies, everyday life, language, technology, pleasure, aesthetics, interpretation, rhetoric, and power—the real question we should be asking is, in what possible context would the humanities not be relevant in today’s world? And, perhaps, more importantly, who would have us think such a thing?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Andy Gilats - Why do the humanities matter in today's world?

Andrea (Andy) Gilats, Ph.D., is an educational leader specializing adult and lifelong learning in the arts and humanities. After retiring from the University of Minnesota, she helped the Minnesota Humanities Center develop the “Toward a More Perfect Union” series of public conversations about the United States Constitution.

Almost every day, you see, hear, or read that, according to the very latest polls, about two-thirds of Americans are deeply worried about the future of our democracy. That’s a stunning and scary number! Is our cherished democracy slipping out from under us? And have we lost the will to do something about it?

How might we create a secure, vital future for the democracy we love? What might a living, working American democracy look like in a new century? Even transformative change is bolstered by continuity, so how do we apply our most enduring democratic ideals to our increasingly diverse society? In a time of rapid change and constant motion, how do we build a future in which our children and grandchildren can thrive, even when winds blow and sands shift? Given today’s political landscape, how do we even begin to think and talk about fundamental questions like these?

Because the humanities focus on dialogue, reflection, and meaning-making, they offer a perfect path through which to engage complex questions in ways we can understand and embrace. The humanities reveal us to ourselves because they illuminate the full landscape of human endeavor—both public and private—through fields of inquiry and discovery, such as civics, the arts, philosophy, religion, and history. Truly, the humanities offer the kind of multifaceted approach we need if we are to find common ground upon which to create a sustainable future for our democracy.

Do the humanities still matter? Human history tells us that they have always mattered, and efforts like “Toward a More Perfect Union: Talking About the Constitution” are living proof that they matter today, perhaps more than ever. The U. S. Constitution, one of the greatest humanities documents ever created, enables us to connect with one another using the very document that keeps our democracy from falling apart. Where better to find common ground as we engage with our neighbors—those we know and those we need to know—to explore our democratic journey?

By drawing on what we, ourselves, have done and made, the humanities show us that we are all in this together. Exploring our shared humanity allows us to transcend even the deepest ideological, social, and cultural differences to illuminate the past, live consciously in the present, and shape a better world.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

David Mura - Why do the humanities matter in today's world?

David Mura recently published his fourth poetry collection, The Last Incantations. Mura's two memoirs are Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, which won a 1991 Josephine Miles Book Award from the Oakland PEN and was listed in the New York Times Notable Books of Year, and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity. He's also written a novel, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire, and three other books of poetry.

Years from now, this summer will be remembered as “The Summer of Ferguson.” Certainly, many will never forget the disturbing images of the past few weeks: The body of Michael Brown sprawled in the street; the video of Eric Garner being grappled and choked to death by police; the video of Kaijieme Powell being shot to death by St. Louis police. The police in combat gear with aimed M4 Carbines and riding MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles), lobbing LRADs and tear gas canisters into mostly black crowds.

Of course, the interpretation of these events depends upon the context in which one views them.

In a tiresome déjà vu, there has been the usual calls for further dialogue about race, so numerous that the Daily Show did a send-up montage of such mouthings. But this dialogue has been present from the time the Puritans arrived on this continent as Toni Morrison’s novel, A Mercy, and Langston’s Hughes’ poem, provide witness to:
I am the American heartbreak—
The rock on which Freedom
Stumped its toe—
The great mistake
That Jamestown made
Long ago.
Much of this dialogue, though, has always been one sided. And so, in 2014, we are still dealing with the problems of race because no true dialogue can take place if one side is not actually listening to the other side.

I’m a Sansei, a third generation Japanese American. My family came to this dialogue comparatively late, when my grandparents immigrated to this country around 1905. But with the yellow peril ideology that greeted their arrival, with the anti-Asian exclusion laws of 1924, and the imprisonment of my parents’ families during World War II, we too have been part of that history our nation is still trying to acknowledge and bear witness to. In my own portion, my parents, after being imprisoned for their race and ethnicity, tried both consciously and unconsciously to raise me to assimilate into white middle-class America. As a result I grew up hating both my ethnicity and my race. And when, in high school, my friends would say, “I think of you David like a white person,” I would think, “Yes, that’s what I want to be. That means I’m normal, accepted. I am not a foreigner; I really do belong here.”

It wasn’t until my late twenties that I realized the delusion of such thinking. I was not white. I was a third generation Japanese American. But what did that mean? What was my identity? Where did I fit in this dialogue of race that was such a part of our family history, a history my parents, bearing the shame and ignominy of the internment, never spoke to me about?

At the time, I’d spent five years in English graduate school. But I had read almost no works by black writers or writers of color. And so, I began to read black writers and thinkers, and I found in them both a language to speak about my own racial identity and history and a corollary to my own experiences of race and that of my family. Writers like Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange, Lucille Clifton; later scholars like Dubois, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., bell hooks and Cornell West, and more recently social scientists like Michelle Alexander—all of these helped me understand the other side of the dialogue that my twenty-one years of formal education had not provided me. Without that tradition of black and African American writers, I would never have become the writer I am today, nor would I have probably gone to Japan and wrote my memoir, Turning Japanese, about my own search for my cultural, racial and historical identity.

Why do we need the humanities? Because without the humanities, and without the specific tradition of African American writers and thinkers, it is nearly impossible for most Americans, particularly white Americans, to even begin to make sense of this summer of Ferguson, a summer which has called up images of Jim Crow, civil rights marches, and the “strange fruit” that Billie Holiday sang about many decades ago. As James Baldwin, far more relevant today than many of his white contemporaries, put it: “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Gary Henrickson - Why do the humanities matter in today's world?

Gary Henrickson is a Dean of Academics at Minnesota State Community and Technical College, a member of the Minnesota Humanities Center Board of Directors, and a Vietnam Veteran.

We live in a world in which many individuals, organizations, and nation-states would answer essential questions for us: What is the good life? How do we live together? How can we all enjoy a good life? And sometimes demanding we accept their answers to be accepted socially or to keep our jobs, sometimes at the point of a gun. As a society, we ask our military to engage in conflicts that often turn on the very questions that the humanities pose. The military services do not attempt to answer such questions per se; rather, our service men and women enact our society’s political and military answers to such questions, taking on the risks, obligations, and privations that this entails, often paying a very high price. In addition, in the course of their duties, many of our service members must face those essential questions. In returning to civilian life, our service members bring their military experience to these questions and can often help the rest of us find new and better answers.

In the past few months, the Humanities Center has been working with American Veterans and members of our armed forces to recognize such existing and potential contributions to our society. The Humanities Center recognizes that our service members have voices to add to these discussions, and Veterans Voices represents a deliberate decision to recognize Veterans and gain from their experience. In 2013, the Humanities Center launched the Veterans’ Voices Award, in which men and women Veterans were honored for their contributions to our Minnesota communities. A discussion series with fifteen Minnesota Veterans took place over the winter of 2013-2014, and a “Veterans’ Play Project” culminated in a stage production based on actual Veteran experiences. More recently, the Humanities Center has co-sponsored a touring exhibit, “Always Lost: A Meditation on War,” focusing on the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans. This past September, the Humanities Center hosted another award ceremony. Finally, due to the continued work of the Humanities Center, the Minnesota legislature has proclaimed October in Minnesota “Veterans’ Voices Month,” the first such honor in the nation.

In the media, Veterans are often treated either as heroes or as social problems. However, as service men and women return to the civilian world, they just as often bring with them skills, abilities, experience, and hard-won understanding about the world we live in. In doing so, Veterans are a resource. They can help with the essential questions that confront us individually and as a society, the very questions that the humanities continue to engage with now as for centuries before. Do the humanities matter in today’s world? Ask a Veteran.