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The humanities: It’s not about what they are; it’s what we do

November 16, 2009

Due to an overwelmingly positive response, we wanted to share the following article with you, which was published in a variety of newspapers throughout Indiana, including the Indianapolis Star on Nov. 4, under the headline “Get in touch with the humanities.”

By Keira Amstutz, president and CEO of the Indiana Humanities Council. 

Once, after a dance performance, Isadora Duncan was asked what the dance meant. Her response has become famous as a terse description of art’s purpose: “If I could tell you what it meant,” she said, “there would be no point in dancing it.”

In my role as president and CEO of the Indiana Humanities Council, I often find myself being asked, “What are the humanities?” And sometimes, like Isadora Duncan, I think it’d be easier to dance than answer the question.

Why? Because sometimes describing the humanities is like describing the wind – it’s easier to say what it does than what it is. It swirls leaves on an autumn sidewalk. It teases a little girl’s hair. It pulses through a wheat field like waves on a landlocked sea.

So, I thought I’d explain what the humanities are by explaining what you can do – and perhaps already do – in, through and with them every day.

I don’t pretend that this list is conclusive; I know it only scratches the surface. But I hope that it will, in its breadth and diversity, allow you to create – and, more important, put into action – your own definition of the humanities. So, let’s get started:

Read a novel. Read a poem. Read the directions on a shampoo bottle. Read the Declaration of Independence. Read a blog. Read an essay. Read a review of a book you’ll never read. Read a sacred text. Read your diary. Read to a kid. Read the liner notes to an old jazz album. Read the lyrics to a song you love. Read a libretto.

See a play with a friend. Go early. Wander through the theater. View the stage from different angles. Peruse the program. Learn about the actors. Watch the play. Study the set. Notice the lighting. Listen to reactions. Find a place to have coffee. Discuss the play. Go to another play. Repeat the process.

Visit a courtroom. Visit a classroom. Visit an old teacher. Visit a park. Visit a museum. Visit a library. Visit City Hall. Visit a college campus. Visit a craftsman’s workbench. Visit an artist’s studio.

Look at a piece of art. Study it. Step back. Look at the piece beside it. Ask yourself: Why are these pieces next to each other? Why is this art? Step back again. Ask yourself: Does the size of the room affect the way I look at the art? Step back again. How does seeing more change the way you see the art?

Listen to a band. Listen to a debate. Listen to a well-tuned machine. Listen to a podcast. Listen to a diner ordering dinner. Listen to a photographer describing a photo. Listen to an architect explaining a building’s design. 

Stop outside a building you pass every day; look at its design. Do you know the name for the architectural style? Do you like it? What appeals to you? What would you do differently? Get a book about architecture and learn about the style. Find other examples of that style and compare them. Find examples of other styles and compare them. Take a walk with a colleague and debate the architecture you see.

Attend a historic-home tour. Attend a lecture. Attend the symphony. Attend a gallery reception. Attend a festival. Attend a legislative session. Attend opening night (of anything). Attend a public forum.

Speak at a public forum. Sing in a choir. Yell “Bravo” at a concert. Ask a question. Tell someone your family’s history. Recite a poem. Describe a work of art. Say what you think.

Now, think about what you’ve done. You’ve examined, studied and reviewed something made by humans or something that makes us human. You’ve thought about it, pondered it and processed it. And you’ve talked about it, debated it and discussed it.

That’s what the humanities are.

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