In my late 20s, I knew that I wanted to make a vocational shift, but I struggled to find the courage to do so. One day, I came across the lines of Transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau. “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he wrote in Walden in 1854. Though Thoreau lapsed into an unfortunate gender bias (as women may lead lives of quiet desperation, too), I still took refuge in his words. Reflecting on my own life (which felt quietly desperate, I realized) imparted me with the audacity to make a change and follow…
by Scott Gartlan, Executive Director, Charlotte Teachers Institute
In this video, Scott Gartlan discusses his reaction to seeing Arthur Miller’s 1947 play All My Sons and seeing deep connections between the play’s narrative and his own life story. He goes on to reflect on the power of storytelling to bridge generations and personal circumstances.
Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Steve Earle discusses the impact of witnessing his father write a letter to the Texas governor on behalf of a condemned man in San Antonio. Having already begun to reflect on the importance of political engagement and the ethics of capital punishment, Earle felt especially moved by both the book and film version of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood in the late 1960s. In tandem, these experiences contributed to his becoming a passionate advocate against the death penalty.
Over the years I have been blessed by many humanities moments, but there is one that I especially cherish. Some fifteen years ago, I happened upon an article in The American Scholar written by a professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who put forth the ten qualities he believed a person would acquire from having a solid liberal arts education. It was the tenth quality on his list that got me. It was “Only Connect,” two words taken from a work by E. M. Forster. By this, the professor meant that a liberal arts education…
by Justin Parmenter, Charlotte Mecklenburg School District, NC
English teacher Justin Parmenter describes how his encounters with essays by Thoreau and Emerson, and later with the poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” helped him to understand how literature can provide both an escape from the troubles of life and a connection to others who’ve seen and felt the same things though they may have lived centuries before.
by William Ferris, former Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities
In this excerpt from a conversation with William Ferris, former Chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities, he shares how he came to see himself in Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who declares that he will fly from the nets of “nationality, language, and religion.”
He notes that at the time he encountered the character he and Stephen were about the same age and describes how he identified his own struggles as a young Southerner with those Dedalus experiences as…
by Dr. Gil Greggs, Director of Academic Programs, St. David’s School, Raleigh NC
In this video, Gil Greggs from St. David’s School in Raleigh, NC, recalls a series of moments in which he came to appreciate the power of literature and the arts to capture and convey the power and subtlety of human experience.
by Brooke Andrade, Director of the Library, National Humanities Center
I started learning Latin in seventh grade because I decided it was the most difficult course I could take, and I had something to prove. I was an economically disadvantaged student in a wealthy private school, and all of my classmates knew it. I would never live in their mansions, or wear their expensive clothes, or go on their exotic vacations, so I set about making myself at least academically equal. Like most grade school students who read Latin, the poetry of Catullus was some of the first “real” literature I encountered. After the dry,…
In this short video, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns recalls having Robert Penn Warren read a passage from his novel All The King’s Men during the production of the Huey Long portion of his documentary series “Ken Burns’ America.” He notes that it is voices like Warren’s that have helped animate his work, bringing to life his own journey and that which he has tried to share through his films.
by Thomas Scherer, Consultant, Spencer Capital Holdings
Thomas Scherer describes two related encounters which speak to the power of hearing poetry performed aloud. The first is an explanatory talk and poetry reading by the great literary scholar M. H. Abrams at the National Humanities Center; the second is hearing Lin-Manuel Miranda discuss his award-winning rap musical, Hamilton.
About seven months ago, our son was in a tragic ski accident, and was in a coma for close to a month. And during that really painful time, we didn’t know what was going to happen. Was he ever going to wake up? Was he not going to wake up?
I, myself, couldn’t sleep and I was haunted all the time by thoughts of what might happen to him in the future, and how did this happen, and thinking about the past. And I remember thinking in one of those late-night moments about “The Odyssey” and about the description of the sirens on the banks. Of…
by W. Robert Connor, trustee emeritus, President and Director, of the National Humanities Center (1989-2002)
In the Hanoi Hilton, the place where the North Vietnamese imprisoned and often tortured American captives during the Vietnam War, the US prisoners used a tapping code to communicate with one another. But they didn’t just send conversational messages, they tapped out poetry, reciting from memory some of the favorites they remembered from school and composing new poems to lift their spirits. Their captors would not allow them to speak to one another. But they didn’t notice the tapping — or didn’t understand what it was about.
by Robert D. Newman, President and Director, National Humanities Center
In this excerpt of a talk given at the National Humanities Center, Robert D. Newman discusses an exemplary humanities moment, when Kurt Vonnegut responded to the banning and burning of Vonnegut’s book Slaughterhouse Five by school officials in Drake, North Dakota in 1973.
The night of April 4, 1968, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy received the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Kennedy was about to speak in Indianapolis and some in his campaign wondered if they should go ahead with the rally.
Moments before Kennedy climbed onto a flatbed truck to address the crowd, which had gathered in a light rain, press secretary Frank Mankiewicz gave the candidate a sheet a paper with ideas of what he might say. Kennedy slid it into his pocket without looking at it. Another aide approached with…