Thursday, February 5, 2015

Joyce Sutphen - Is there hope for the Humanities?

Joyce Sutphen teaches British literature and creative writing at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN. Her first collection of poems, Straight Out of View (1995), won the Barnard Women’s Poets Prize. Subsequent collections include Coming Back to the Body (2000), a Minnesota Book Award finalist, Naming the Stars (2004), winner of the Minnesota Book Award, and First Words (2010). She was named Minnesota’s Poet Laureate in 2011.

How are the humanities doing these days? It depends on how things are measured. Not so well, if one counts the proportionate number of college students majoring in English or Philosophy these days, but not so poorly if one listens to what matters to young people as they embark on more “practical” careers in economics or science. What matters to them is finding happiness and meaning in life (call it wisdom; call it the search for beauty, truth and goodness).

For years I have been teaching a humanities first term seminar at Gustavus Adolphus College — a wonderful liberal arts college. My course focusses on travel and journeys of all kinds: physical trips, spiritual quests, and the journey that is each human life. My students are first year students, who, for the most part, plan on majoring in business and science, but in my class they spend the semester reading a range of texts from Siddhartha to Wild, considering their own “life treks” (where they’ve been, where they’re going, and how they plan on getting there).

Nearly every day I read a poem in class — one that is obviously related to the course (Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” or William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark”) or one I think they’ll like, such as Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day,” with its stirring conclusion:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

I assure you that for most of them, making a lot of money is not what they plan to do, especially after they are reminded of their “wild and precious” lives. They want to make a difference in the world; they want to feel fulfilled.

The humanities are for human beings; they are about being human, and they inspire and challenge us as we live in our particular time and place. They themselves could never be in trouble; in fact, the humanities (with their dreams for better worlds and their critiques of the time being) are an answer to trouble —“shelter from the storm” as Bob Dylan said. Another way of saying this is to say that when the humanities seem to be in trouble, it is an indication that the community (the country, the world) is in trouble and that we need the humanities more than ever. What William Carlos Williams said about poetry can be said about the humanities in general:

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.”

1 comment:

  1. "The humanities are an answer to trouble."

    This put me in mind of John Stuart Mill, who in his autobiography reports a period of psychological gloom that we would call clinical depression: “At first I hoped that the cloud would pass away of itself; but it did not. … I carried it with me into all companies, into all occupations. Hardly anything had power to cause me even a few minutes oblivion of it. For some months the cloud seemed to grow thicker and thicker.” He saw no way out: “There seemed no power in nature sufficient to begin the formation of my character anew."

    But then Mill encountered the poetry of William Wordsworth. What Wordsworth did for Mill was open up “the common feelings and common destiny of human beings.” Mill began to feel himself part of the human community again.