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)

Rosie the Riveter
In this moment, a high school math teacher discusses the documentary Top Secret Rosies: The Female “Computers” of WWII. Beyond the awe for these women who took part in American military operations as human computers during World War II, this contributor is inspired by a statement made by one of the women in the movie, crediting her high school math teacher for her interest and advanced skills in mathematics. As a high school math teacher herself, this contributor understands the impact she can have on the life of her students,…

by Betty Reid Soskin
African American Park Ranger Sylvester Putman and Maggie Laura Walker Lewis at the July 14, 1985 opening ceremony for Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site
At 95, Betty Reid Soskin is the oldest active U.S. Park Ranger. Having lived through wars, racial segregation, and other turbulent times in our history, she says empathy and world peace are possible through the humanities.To celebrate its 40th year anniversary of grant making, programming, and partnerships that connect Californians to each other, California Humanities invited a group of 40 prominent Californians to explore what the humanities mean to them. For more information visit calhum.org/about/we-are-the-humanities.

by Luis Rodriguez, poet laureate of Los Angeles in 2014
Los Angeles public library
Luis Rodriguez, poet laureate of Los Angeles in 2014, explains how his love for books and libraries rescued him from a life of trouble. He notes that through books, he discovered more about people and their lives, which encouraged his interest in writing about injustice and activism.To celebrate its 40th year anniversary of grant making, programming, and partnerships that connect Californians to each other, California Humanities invited a group of 40 prominent Californians to explore what the humanities mean to them. For more information visit…

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…

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…

by C. Allen Parker, General Counsel, Wells Fargo & Company
Vincent van Gogh, "Wheatfield with Crows"
In what I believe was the latter part of the 1980s, I was dragged, kicking and screaming, to a van Gogh exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. And for the first time in my life, I wore one of those machines around my neck, where you listen to headphones and you hear somebody describe what it is you’re going to see. It was a brand-new experience.

The narrator was the then-director of the Metropolitan Museum, Philippe de Montebello, and at the introductory part of the exhibit, I was really struck by the quality of what he was saying. It was…

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 Deborah Ross, lawyer & politician
Egyptian cat statuette at Metropolitan Museum of Art
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler turned Deborah Ross’s world upside down. Kongisberg’s book, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, chronicles the adventures of Claudia and her brother, who run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The book kindled Ross’s imagination so much that when she visited the museum with her parents, she retraced the protagonist’s steps in search of the Egyptian cat, the fountain, and Michelangelo’s sculpture.

by Averill Corkin, Graduate Student, Harvard University
Averill Corkin
Averill Corkin describes the moment she decided to major in the humanities after seeing a video performance of the song “Du måste finnas” (“You Have to Be There”), in which a female refugee, overcome with loss and fear, questions the existence of God. She notes, despite the language difference, she understood the woman’s experience through the melody and the nature of her performance. She goes on to talk about the power of the humanities to connect us through our appreciation of art regardless of geographic, cultural, and language…

by Steve Oreskovic, Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District
The burning of the Stamp Act in 1765
History teacher Steve Oreskovic discusses how he gets his students to empathize with the feelings of injustice among colonists in the run up to the American Revolution, helping them gain a richer context for learning about history.

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 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 Carly Hill, 34, teacher
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I was a brand new college freshman getting ready to attend my Political Science class that started at 8:45am on September 11, 2001. I heard the news on the radio when I first woke up and I thought it wasn't real. I turned on the TV and still couldn't believe it was real. I didn't know what else to do except go to class and so I did. My professor came in the room sobbing and she told us all to go home and be with our families. We all walked out of the lecture hall, scattering across the green, going our different directions. I began walking to…

by Emily Martin
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Last year, my dance class at school went to a county wide “Dance Day,” where public school dance programs from all over my area came together to perform for each other and take free master classes. I had been twice before, so I knew what to expect; however I did not know what class I would be participating in. After the welcome ceremony, I was told which room number my class would be in. When I entered the room, there were drums lined up all along the mirrors and a man dressed in colorful clothes, who welcomed me at the door. It was an…

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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…

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 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 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 Olivia K. Moore
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A few months ago I visited a local art museum and there was one particular exhibit that caught my interest. It was a photography exhibit by Lucinda Devlin. She had many different collections but the one I found myself looking at the longest was a collection of pictures she took in execution rooms in the United States. Most of them were lethal injection rooms, but some were electric shock. Death sentences are not something unheard of in the United States and are not uncommon, however there has been a long debate about whether or not they are…

Map of Walden Pond
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…
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