Humanities Moments

Humanities Moments

We’ve all had “humanities moments” — when our lives were made richer, more poignant, and meaningful because of the insights the humanities provide.

Browse Items (10 total)

by J. Porter Durham, Jr., General Counsel and Chief Operating Officer, Global Endowment Management, LP
William Jennings Bryan campaign poster, 1900
J. Porter Durham, Jr. grew up in the segregated South during a time when public Ku Klux Klan sightings were not uncommon. In this video, Durham describes how a history class at Duke University taught by Lawrence Goodwyn upended his worldview. Professor Goodwyn’s book, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America, transfigured Durham’s understanding of his local and familial history. For the first time, he was “forced to think anew.”

by Peter A. Benoliel
Virginia Woolf
Some years ago, I was asked to give a lecture to students enrolled in a small university’s humanities program describing the personal epiphany I experienced which led to my passion for the humanities. Try as I might, I could not think of an isolated, single experience but rather a series of moments that stretch back to my childhood and have “stuck to my ribs” over a lifetime. A very early memory: perhaps at the age of six or seven, I became mesmerized by Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” and repeatedly played it on the phonograph…

by Mirah Horowitz, Russell Reynolds Associates
"The Tragedie of King Lear," William Shakespeare
Mirah Horowitz describes the lessons imparted from her mother, an English professor, on reading and writing as ongoing practices of critical inquiry. Building on their shared love of Shakespeare, Horowitz’s mother taught her daughter how the act of writing can cultivate ideas, prompt questions, and nurture a deeper appreciation for literature. In this light, Horowitz reflects on how the practice of reading and writing about works such as King Lear and As You Like It provided an opportunity to engage with the world in a…

by Ben Vinson III, Dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, George Washington University
Mount Rushmore
Ben Vinson III reflects on how an appreciation for history can enrich our understanding of what he calls the “depth to our days.” Specifically, he recalls how the story of Mount Rushmore’s construction kindled his boyhood imagination growing up in South Dakota.His mother, an elementary school teacher, would read her son stories of the monument’s construction, instilling a lifelong passion for history. Vinson goes on to explain how history provides a “much greater context to the things happening in our daily lives.”

by Sally Dalton Robinson
Monument to E. M. Forster in Stevenage, Hertfordshire
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 William Leuchtenburg, William Rand Kenan Jr. professor emeritus of history, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
"The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry," by Harold Bloom
In this account, William Leuchtenburg shares the story of a seemingly routine exchange with literary scholars in the late 1970s which spurred him to new insights about the ways iconic figures from the past influence those who succeed them, whether they be poets, or composers, or U.S. Presidents. Eventually, he would share these insights in his major work on presidential legacies, In The Shadow of FDR.Already an accomplished political historian at the time of this moment, Leuchtenburg demonstrates how the questions and ways of seeing in…

by Joan Hinde Stewart, President Emerita, Hamilton College
Joan of Arc, from 'Vie des Femmes Celebres,' c. 1505
In this video, Joan Hinde Stewart recalls the first book she ever checked out of a library — a biography of Joan of Arc — a memory triggered by an experience in her sixties. She describes the fascination she felt about Joan of Arc from an early age and the conflict she felt about reading this biography, as it was unsanctioned by the Catholic church. As she notes, however, “I became positively besotted with The Maid of Orleans. I could do nothing but think about Joan. That’s the way she is. She grabs you, and no matter how well you know…

by Carol Quillen, President, Davidson College
Confessions of St. Augustine
Carol Quillen describes how, growing up, her initial insights and perceptions came from what she calls promiscuous reading — reading anything and everything and then finding connections among these very different texts. She consumed Augustine’s Confessions, in the original Latin, which captures and conveys meaning differently than English and enabled her both to grasp and question the complex ways in which language represents reality. These differences in language, like reading, reveal different ways of seeing the world, and by…

by Thomas Scherer, Consultant, Spencer Capital Holdings
Hamilton, an American Musical
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.Across generations, cultural divides, venues, and artistic voices, the power of lyric poetry to capture and convey powerful feeling is undeniable. And when poetry is performed and embodied, “brought to life” if…

by W. Robert Connor, trustee emeritus, President and Director, of the National Humanities Center (1989-2002)
Captain John Borling, 1973
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. Here’s…
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