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 (105 total)

Portrait of Abigail Adams
In a time when wives were treated like property, Abigail Adams insisted that her husband “Remember the Ladies” when writing the laws of the country and warning him, that “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” Full text of some of her letters can be found athttp://americainclass.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/AAdams-StudentVersion.pdf

by Omar H. Ali, 46, Historian
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My Abu (‘father’ in Urdu) is my favorite storyteller ... I grew up with stories of his childhood in India and later in his life: he and his best friend, Shafi, climbing neem trees in Puna; them trying to get back at a bully, but having their elaborate plan—with one of them crouching behind the bully while the other pushed him over—completely backfire (getting beat-up for a second time!); them tapping people’s heads from atop a wall as the clueless souls walked by not knowing what just happened; traveling by boat from India to…

by Yolande Frommer, 78, retired Travel Agent
Mstislav Rostropovich
It was our first real date. His blind date had backed out and I volunteered to hear Rostropovich’s debut in Washington to play the Dvořák. It was not only a memorable concert but a few years later I married my date. We had a wonderful marriage lasting almost 40 years until he passed away. This experience listening to the concerto was the real start of my love for classical music.

by Morna O’Neill, age 41, art history professor
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
My family always visited art museums when I was a child. I’m not quite sure why, as we never talked about the art, and I wondered, in secret, what exactly we were supposed to be doing there. When I was about eight years old, I read a book that answered that question: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg. It is the story of two children—a brother and a sister—who run away from home to solve the mystery of a sculpture: was it a long-lost work by Michelangelo? They hide in the Metropolitan Museum…

Photograph of Emily Dickinson
This short poem by Emily Dickinson (a mere six lines), describes how service to others, even in the smallest of ways, can give a life purpose and meaning.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

by Skye Shirley, age 28, Latin Teacher in Boston, MA
“Helen,” by Euripides
While taking Latin in high school, I became fascinated by the story of the Trojan War. I loved the interconnected perspectives of soldiers, royalty, deities, and ordinary people. The family trees and catalogues of soldiers seemed endless, and I was thrilled to discover that each individual inspired stories, plays, and art. As I began to master the intricacies of the myths, I prided myself on recognizing the differences between movies like “Troy” or Disney’s “Hercules” and the original story. I watched eagerly to notice what they got…

Portrait of Frederick Douglass
In the speech from which this excerpt is taken, Frederick Douglass delivered a powerful argument about the hypocrisy inherent in celebrating America’s founding while continuing to allow slavery. As he notes, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

by Kevin Guthrie, founder/president, ITHAKA
Ulysses and the Sirens, illustration from an antique Greek vase
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 William Ferris, former Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities
James Joyce, 1915
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…

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, "The Message"
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, a hip-hop group from the South Bronx in New York City, released a single on Sugar Hill Records in 1982 titled “The Message.”

by Robert D. Newman, President and Director, National Humanities Center
Kurt Vonnegut, 1972
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.

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.

by Robert H Jackson Center
Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial, 1939
Denied the right to perform at Constitution Hall by the DAR because of her color, Marian Anderson was permitted to perform at the Lincoln Memorial by Harold Ickes at the urging of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Paul Cezanne, “The Bathers”
When I first encountered Paul Cezanne's most famous painting, The Bathers, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art I was struck by the way the artist was able to depict subtle differences among the figures even though none of them have distinct facial features. Over time, as I've revisited this amazing work and learned more about Cezanne's desire to create a work that was both modern and timeless, I find myself constantly noticing different things—the natural community of the nude bathers versus the buildings in the distance, the framing…

by Robert D. Newman, President and Director, National Humanities Center
"When Breath Becomes Air," by Paul Kalanithi
Just as he was completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air, the memoir Kalanithi wrote in the midst of his illness, traces his journey from brilliant medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” to his life as a patient and new father faced with his own mortality. As his body declines, his spirit expands. “Science may provide the most useful…

by Scott, 34, former journalist
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I was a newspaper reporter covering the War in Iraq in the late 2000s. My assignment was exciting, but often lonely. I bounced from town to town, usually embedded with the U.S. Army. At the end of a long day, there often was no one to talk to, grab a bite with or even watch a bootleg movie. What I did have, though, was a paperback copy of The Great War for Civilization by Robert Fisk. The book helped describe the near-history events that led to the real-time history I was witnessing on a daily basis. Through thorough research and…

by Matthew Booker, associate professor of American environmental history, North Carolina State University
Fishing camp
I like picnics. Picnics take us outside, to share food with people we like. Those are my three favorite things, and picnics offer all three with a minimum of fuss or cost. Every picnic is a special occasion. But one stands out because it showed me how much we can learn from deeply observing the world around us. Such observation joins us to the experiences of those who have come before, and perhaps even see through their eyes. It is a humanities experience. One summer day, to celebrate a birthday, my spouse and I packed up our little girls and…

by Nancy Gardner, educational consultant and NBCT teacher
East German citizens climb the Berlin Wall
I remember seeing the images on the television, in newspapers, and in magazines. It was such an epic event. The Berlin Wall was coming down, something I never imagined would happen. As a child in the 50s and 60s, I remember bomb drills during elementary school. Several of my friends had fallout shelters in their homes. I used to be afraid of bombs, of communists, of Khrushchev. I tried to understand how a wall could divide the city of Berlin into two very different places. And then, in 1989, the unbelievable happened. I had just accepted an…

Steve Jobs at Stanford University
Drawing from some of the most pivotal points in his life, Steve Jobs, chief executive officer and co-founder of Apple Computer and of Pixar Animation Studios, urged graduates to pursue their dreams and see the opportunities in life’s setbacks — including death itself — at the university’s 114th Commencement on June 12, 2005. Transcript of Steve Jobs’ address.

Robert Kennedy in Indianapolis, 1968
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…
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