Thursday, April 16, 2015

Gwen Westerman - Embracing Our World

A poet and visual artist, Gwen Westerman is Professor in English and Director of the Humanities Program at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

The humanities have often been described as what makes us “human”—languages, music, the arts, philosophy, history, literature, religion. They foster creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. They teach us to cross boundaries and to make connections. The late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, Inc., was a master at crossing boundaries. In 2011, he said, “technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” And when our hearts sing, when we cross boundaries, both real and imagined, we can embrace what it means to be human. The humanities provide us with views of places we may never have considered going, of cultures and ideas both ancient and new, where we may find more similarities than we could have thought possible.

In October 2014, I went to Anchorage, Alaska, where I stood next to a mountain lake at the base of a glacier. I was stunned by the beautiful blue core of the ice. Even now, I am at a loss for words to describe what I saw and felt—what the 19th-century Romantic poets would call the “sublime” power of Nature. The high-resolution camera on my smart phone could not adequately capture the awe of that moment. The next day, I attended a conference session with Inupiat teachers from the North Slope of Alaska, an isolated area with limited roads. One of the teachers has a one-room school with 40 students in grades K-12, where she teaches all subjects including music, art, literature, and Inupiat language. The teachers spoke about connecting their students to their traditional language through digital technology. They told us they have 52 words for “snow.” The Inupiat language can also describe the complexities of sea water and glacier ice in ways that scientists are only beginning to understand.

While I learned a lot in those few days in Alaska, I realized that I would have only limited access to the vast knowledge held by the people who have lived there for millennia, who observe the patterns of the land and seasons, who describe their relationship to their homeland in multiple languages—Inupiat, Yupik, Gwich’in, Tlingit, Haida. Yet, we what we share is immense. In a world that seems increasingly fragmented and hyper-specialized, it is our disparate human knowledge that connects us, that helps us design new solutions when cultures work together side by side. Steve Jobs also pointed out, “The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” It is the humanities that teach us to embrace the similarities and the differences of our experiences, to reach across boundaries, and to make enduring connections. Now that the last patches of snow have melted near my home, I think about those Inupiat teachers sharing their beautiful, complex language with hand-held devices, their vast homeland, and the blueness of the glacier ice. My heart sings.

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