Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘education’

26 JUNE, 2013

George Lucas, John Lithgow, and Other Luminaries on How the Humanities Make Us Human

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“Measurable is what we know, and the immeasurable is what the heart searches for. The humanities are the immeasurable.”

Ray Bradbury famously argued for reading as a prerequisite for democracy. “Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science,” Wordsworth wrote. In her superb 2013 McGill commencement address, philosopher Judith Butler championed the value of the humanities as a tool of tolerance. And yet the humanities have slipped into endangered academic species status — so says a major new plea of a report titled to Congress from the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, titled The Heart of the Matter, which opens with a sense of unequivocal urgency:

As we strive to create a more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation, the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic — a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common. They are critical to a democratic society and they require our support.

Accompanying the report is this beautiful short film, a collection of luminaries’ testimonials for the value and immeasurable impact of the humanities both in our individual journey toward understanding the meaning of life and our collective odyssey toward better understanding one another and our place in the universe. Selected highlights below.

From director George Lucas:

The sciences are the “how,” and the humanities are the “why” — why are we here, why do we believe in the things we believe in. I don’t think you can have the “how” without the “why.”

From architect Billie Tsien:

Measurable is what we know, and the immeasurable is what the heart searches for. The humanities are the immeasurable. … If we leave behind the humanities and see it as unimportant, I think we’ll lose our ability to dream.

From masterful storyteller Ken Burns, revered voice of history:

The humanities are what Thomas Jefferson meant when he said “the pursuit of happiness” — this is not a pursuit of objects in a marketplace of things; this is the pursuit of ideas in a marketplace of our future.

From actor John Lithgow:

Without the humanities, life doesn’t have life — that’s the heart of the matter.

Complement with Dorion Sagan, son of Carl, and his eloquent case for why science and philosophy need each other.

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07 JUNE, 2013

Philosopher Judith Butler on the Value of the Humanities and Why We Read

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“We lose ourselves in what we read, only to return to ourselves, transformed and part of a more expansive world.”

Joining the year’s crop of notable graduation speeches — including Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, Greil Marcus on “high” and “low” culture, Arianna Huffington on success, Joss Whedon on embracing our inner contradictions, and Oprah Winfrey on failure and finding your purpose — is philosopher and author Judith Butler, who received an honorary degree from McGill University and delivered the commencement address.

Butler opens with a case for literature as a tool of empathy:

[The humanities allow us] to learn to read carefully, with appreciation and a critical eye; to find ourselves, unexpectedly, in the middle of the ancient texts we read, but also to find ways of living, thinking, acting, and reflecting that belong to times and spaces we have never known. The humanities give us a chance to read across languages and cultural differences in order to understand the vast range of perspectives in and on this world. How else can we imagine living together without this ability to see beyond where we are, to find ourselves linked with others we have never directly known, and to understand that, in some abiding and urgent sense, we share a world?

Echoing Virginia Woolf, she offers a meditation on the ideals of reading:

Ideally, we lose ourselves in what we read, only to return to ourselves, transformed and part of a more expansive world — in short, we become more critical and more capacious in our thinking and our acting.

Reverberating Ray Bradbury’s faith in reading as a prerequisite for democracy, Butler argues:

An active and sensate democracy requires that we learn how to read well, not just texts but images and sounds, to translate across languages, across media, ways of performing, listening, acting, making art and theory.

Much like ignorance drives science, Butler suggests, the willingness to not know also propels the humanities:

We have to continue to shake off what we sometimes think we know in order to lend our imaginations to vibrant and sometimes agonistic spectrums of experience.

In reflecting on how a humanities education has prepared these young people to take on the world for which they are about to assume “a rather awesome and exciting responsibility,” Butler makes a beautiful case for critical thinking as the foundation of nonviolence:

You will need all of those skills to move forward, affirming this earth, our ethical obligations to live among those who are invariably different from ourselves, to demand recognition for our histories and our struggles at the same time that we lend that to others, to live our passions without causing harm to others, and to know the difference between raw prejudice and distortion, and sound critical judgment.

The first step towards nonviolence, which is surely an absolute obligation we all bear, is to begin to think critically, and to ask others to do the same.

Pair with Butler on doubting love, then complement with some of history’s finest commencement addresses, including recently revisited gems like David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on making good art, Bill Watterson on creative integrity, and older favorites by Ellen DeGeneres, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos.

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06 JUNE, 2013

June 6, 1917: Edna St. Vincent Millay Almost Gets Banned from Her Own Graduation

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“I always said … that I had come in over the fence & would probably leave the same way.”

Anne Sexton’s recently rediscovered report card revealed that the celebrated author barely made it through school. During her last week of college, Edna St. Vincent Millay — beloved poet, eloquent lover of music, writer of passionate love letters and playfully lewd self-portraits — found herself in a similar conundrum, though for very different reasons. On June 6, 1917, the vivacious, life-loving 25-year-old Millay sends her family a letter from Vassar, which she had entered late, at the age of 21, after taking several classes at Barnard College and, dissatisfied, deciding to transfer. Found in The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library), it informed them of the consequences of Millay’s youthful mischief with charmingly self-conscious faux-nonchalance. Underpinning her words is her signature blend of irreverent pride and genuine sensitivity, and her unrelenting ability to seek and find, above all else, that which is beautiful and worthy of cheer.

Dear Mother & Sister —

In a few days now I shall write myself
A.B.
& send home my sheepskin for you to frame & hang up unesthetically in a conspicuous position. Everything is all right. My bills are paid.

But I must tell you something unpleasant but quite unimportant which has just occurred. — Because I was absent-minded & stayed away out of town with three other girls one night, forgetting until it was too late that I had no right to be there because I had already lost my privileges for staying a couple of days in New York to go to the Opera, — the Faculty has taken away from me my part in Commencement. — That doesn’t mean just what it says, because my part in Commencement will go on without me, — Baccalaureate Hymn [which Millay composed], for instance, or the words of Tree Ceremonies, which we repeat — & it all seems pretty shabby, of course, after all that I have done for the college, that it would turn me out at the end with scarcely enough time to pack and, as you might say, sort of “without a character.” — The class is exceedingly indignant, bless ‘em, & is busy sending in petitions signed by scores of names, & letters from representative people, & all that. It will do no good. But it is a splendid row.

I always said, you remember, that I had come in over the fence & would probably leave the same way. — Well, that’s what I’m doing.

I don’t pretend that I don’t feel badly. I do. — I have wept gallons — all over everybody. — Terribly nervous, you know, because I had sat up three whole nights during exams, to get my topics done, — & no sleep in the day-time. … It isn’t a disgrace, you see, folks, — it’s just a darned unpleasant penalty for carelessness of college rules, occurring at a darned unfortunate time.

But I never knew before that I had so many friends. — Everybody is wonderful.

So wonderful were her legions of friends, in fact, that they steered things in Millay’s favor. The following Sunday, she writes her sister:

Dear Norma —
Tell Mother it is all right, — the class made such a fuss that they let me come back, & I graduated in my cap & gown along with the rest. Tell her it had nothing to do with money; — all my bills have been settled for some time. — Commencement went off beautifully & I had a wonderful time. Tell her this at once if you can. . . .

But, to be sure, Millay was no careless party girl — during her time at Vassar, she had already sold a number of poems to various publications and was about to launch into adult life with full force. She writes Norma in the same letter:

I’m staying here & just looking around for a job. If I get one soon enough, & it doesn’t begin for a short time perhaps I shall come home when Kathleen does, but otherwise I shall just stay on here until I get something to do, probably. YOu see I have to start right in working as soon as I can get a job, — & I may not be able to come home at all. We mustn’t be foolish about these things.

I have sold October-November to The Yale Review, a fine magazine.

If I got an engagement for the fall then I could come home & do some writing, which I am very anxious to do, this summer. But I can’t come home unless I have something sure here to come back to, — you understand.

I am feeling much rested, — & all keyed up to go to work — but, oh, I am so homesick to see you, dear, & Mother, — & the garden & everything! — Never mind, if I have good luck I shall come home, — unless I have to begin work at once.

She excitedly signs the letter with her newly earned academic degree:

Vincent
(Edna St. Vincent Millay, A.B.!)

Millay, in fact, donned the cap and gown not once but twice in her lifetime. Exactly twenty years later, she received an honorary degree from NYU.

1937 Honorary Degree Recipients with Chancellor Harry Woodburn Chase. Edna St. Vincent Millay appears in front row, center.

The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay is a treasure trove in its entirety, full of timelessly delightful wit and wisdom from one of literary history’s most remarkable figures.

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