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 (159 total)

by Stephen G. Hall, Alcorn State University
African American voter registration, 1960s
Throughout their son’s childhood, Stephen Hall’s parents, both children of sharecroppers, crafted a “deeply humanistic perch” from which he could “view the world.” Though possessing none of the benefits of class or race privilege, they harnessed the power of the book, searching for what historian Isabel Wilkerson has called “the light of other suns” in the “recesses of their minds.” Their personal library—including the Bible, Encyclopedia Britannica, and the Great Books—stoked young Hall’s imagination. The harmonies of…

by Hollis Robbins, Johns Hopkins University
Gilgamesh
In 1979, at age 16, Hollis Robbins found herself enrolled at John Hopkins University. Though she was there as part of a program for girls who excelled in math, she signed up for a humanities lecture class. In that day’s class, drawing upon the epic of Gilgamesh, a guest lecturer expounded on the theory of “mimetic desire,” or the idea that we borrow our desires from other people. Unbeknownst to her, the speaker was none other than famed anthropological philosopher René Girard. Yet, Hollis disagreed. In her opinion, culled from reading…

by Nancy J. Hirschmann, University of Pennsylvania
G.W.F. Hegel
As a 21-year-old senior in college, Nancy Hirschmann encountered—and was forever changed by—German philosopher Hegel’s notoriously difficult passages in The Phenomenology of Spirit. Suddenly, she “broke through the wall” of the concept of the “master-slave dialectic” and its notion of consciousness and recognition. The act of reading a text, deciphering it, and understanding how it translates into a significant meaning kindled Hirschmann’s engagement with political theory. For Hirschmann, grappling with Hegel’s work…

by Mab Segrest, Professor Emerita, Connecticut College
Sappho
Growing up in the mid-1960s as a white girl in Tuskegee, Alabama, Mab Segrest attended a segregated private school that her parents had helped found in response to a court order years earlier to integrate public high schools. In the shadows of governor George Wallace’s racist violence, history had “come to [her] front door.” Seeking a better understanding of the U.S. South, she found William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in the local library. Perplexed by the interior monologue of its opening pages, she forged ahead in…

by Catherine Newell, University of Miami & The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress
Candle
Growing up in a very small town that once had the most churches per capita in the country, Catherine Newell was around many people who were believers. Moving away from her hometown, she encountered a more religiously diverse environment, opening her mind to other possibilities. During her final term in college, she stumbled into a Rabbinic Judaism class. While the texts ignited her intellect, it was the class dialogue that moved her in a profound way. Now a professor of religious studies herself, Newell reflects on how the class offered an…

by Emily Coccia, the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress
Adrienne Rich
In middle school, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird inspired Emily Coccia to imagine the possibilities of the law to bring communities closer to justice. In college, it was the world of critical theory—such as feminist and queer theory—however, that helped her understand the other paths available to those wishing to enact social change.

by Alexander Knirim, Bayreuth University & The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress
Benedict Anderson, “Imagined Communities”
Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism compelled Alexander Knirim, then a young historian, to re-think the role of imagination in history. Knirim recounts how his original misunderstanding, that we can reconstruct historic truth, was challenged by Anderson’s book and evolved into an appreciation of Anderson’s exegesis.

by Kristen Shedd, Fullerton College & The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
An early encounter with muckraking American novelist Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle exposed Kristen Shedd to issues surrounding human rights and animal rights in the early 20th century. For Shedd, the 1906 novel exposed the intersections of fiction, policy, history, and social justice.Sinclair’s story prompted her to seek answers to questions: How did this novel prompt policy change? How did it capture the struggles of historical actors and immigrants in the early 20th century? What other novels did Sinclair write? What institutional…

by Jon Parrish Peede, Acting Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities
Dresden after firebombing, 1945
Fresh out of graduate school, Jon Parrish Peede embraced the chance to travel, arriving in Eastern Europe during the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. A last-minute decision to see the opera Don Giovanni in Vienna—and a startling conversation with a local ticket-taker—opened his eyes to the double-edged legacy of American military intervention. During that same trip, a somber pilgrimage to the former German Nazi Auschwitz extermination camp and museum in Poland offered yet another perspective on World War II.

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 Edward J. Balleisen
"Betting on Zero" by Ted Braun
Several weeks ago I had occasion to watch the new documentary, Betting on Zero. This fascinating film presents several interlinked stories, all related to the founding and growth of Herbalife, a multi-level-marketing company that sells nutritional supplements, weight loss concoctions, and the “business opportunity” to distribute these products. Among the narrative threads: the basic business model of this enterprise, which depends on the perpetual recruitment of new salespeople (this task is facilitated by revival-style meetings…

by Stephen Garrett, 21, Student
feet.JPG
Taking an art class, I incorporated my love for the sport I do into my work. This is a white charcoal on black paper of my friends and me at the Yale Invitational putting our legs up on the wall after a hard night of racing. Translating moments like these into art allows for a special remembrance of the events which is nice for everyone to look back on what they've done.

The humanities gave an opportunity for friends to record a moment in history together. A photo exists of the moment, but after taking the time to draw this out over a few…

by Roddy Doyle, author
"Amarcord" by Federico Fellini
In this video, author Roddy Doyle describes the experience of seeing Fellini’s Amarcord for the first time as a boy in Dublin. Growing up in Ireland, at that time a strict Catholic country, it was revelatory for him to see the religion ridiculed in the subversive comedy-drama. The combination of the beautiful and the grotesque mesmerized the young Doyle, who found the film “a great antidote” to the strict environment of his own religious high school.

by Soravit Sophastienphong, 21, Undergraduate at Duke University
Chinese class
There is a distinct moment I remember from my high school days that, while seemingly insignificant, is the reason I have always valued the humanities and humanities courses throughout my college experience. I was walking to a restaurant to meet a friend for lunch nearby my high school when a Taiwanese couple stopped me and asked for directions to a famous pond nearby. I could tell that they could not understand my instructions, so I tried my best to tell them the directions in Chinese, given my limited knowledge studying Chinese in school.…

by Jennifer Snoddy, 42, high school history teacher, TAC member
The Stanley Brothers
I am not a churchgoer or a believer, and thus, I have always been left with questions about the deeper meaning of life that could not be easily answered through traditional authorities. Instead, I have had to search for ways to make meaning myself. The importance of this quest to make meaning in a chaotic world was first impressed upon me as a young girl when I listened to my father playing traditional bluegrass songs and was almost physically jolted by the power of a single line, "Such a short time to stay here, such a long time to be gone."…

by Alejandro, 19, student
Lake Nicaragua
Every single year, from first grade all the way up to senior year, we heard about one man: Ruben Darío. Growing up in Nicaragua, where this internationally renowned poet/writer is from, one would expect that. We covered his biography life’s works multiple times in our literature classes. I recognized his undeniable talent, but somehow I had managed to overlook the simple fact he was Nicaraguan. It was not until 11th grade when we had a field trip to his house, which is now a preserved landmark 45 minutes away from my school, that I truly…

by Liv McKinney, Duke '20, Biology Major
The Godfather (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
To get an ALP (Arts, Literature, & Philosophy) credit I took an English class about books and short stories that were turned into movies. What I thought would be a fun, lighthearted class, led to an immense appreciation of the details that authors and directors choose to include in their work (while being fun of course). Anything I watch now causes me to think about the choices behind every aspect of production and allows me to explore a creative side that I never thought I would be interested in.

The works we read and watched all caused me…

by Zachary Fine, 19, Student
Lonestar.jpg
I was around seven years old. My dad and I were in the car when the song came on. "My Front Porch Looking In" by the band Lonestar was my favorite song and I knew every word. I loved singing the song at the top of my lungs every time it came on. Today though, I stayed quiet. I had just witnessed yet another argument between my parents and my dad had taken me for a drive around town to cool off. He looked over at me with a confused expression when he saw I wasn't singing. All of a sudden he started singing the song as loud as possible and…

by Yael Lazar, PhD Candidate in Religious Studies at Duke University and a curator for the Humanities Moments Project
Wabi Sabi.jpg
As part of my undergraduate degree in Asian studies, I took a class on Haiku, a traditional form of Japanese poetry. At the time, I knew nothing about Japan beyond its youth’s obsession with Hello Kitty and similar colorful animated characters. In analyzing and understanding the magic of these three-lines poems, we talked a lot about the traditional Japanese aesthetics on which they are based. And it was nothing like Hello Kitty.

Traditional Japanese aesthetics–which can be found in their well-known gardens, teahouses, and architecture…

by Jamie Lathan, 39, teacher and school administrator, husband, father, son, brother, friend.
Jackie Robinson
As I grew up in rural South Carolina in the 1980s, baseball was my favorite hobby and pastime. For most of my 7 year Dixie league/recreational league baseball career (ages 5 to 12), my dad was my coach. I don’t remember watching baseball on television because we only had three to four channels and did not have cable.

On my first baseball team, I was the only black player; and then after that most of my teams were majority black. At this time I only had vague notions about race, although I knew that I was black. Because both of my parents…
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