DEFENDING THE HUMANITIES is difficult. Not because they are not worthy of every single line of defense we can bring to the job – they are – but because of the effort it takes simply to define them, including the very question as to whether they – or it – is a plural or singular discipline. It’s been a struggle. That is, until now.
Last night in Albany, retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter gave a group of about 325 people the words I’ve always needed to defend those ideas I hold most dear. I’ve struggled with this assignment for years, losing my audience’s interest in my awkward opening gambits to grab support.
With eloquence that required no notes – even when the 73-year-old jurist and scholar recited poetry – Justice Souter built an argument of great public importance. Since this is a blog post, I will mainly share here an arsenal of his words, which we must deploy in a war here at home that threatens to destroy the very spirit of liberty that defines this country. But first I’ll give you a little help, reminding you what the humanities encompass.
It was a recent report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, “The Heart of the Matter: the Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation,” that brought Justice Souter to Upstate New York. That report says that “the humanities – including the study of languages, literature, history, jurisprudence, philosophy, comparative religion, and ethics – are disciplines of memoir and imagination, telling us where we have been and helping us envision where we are going.
“They provide the knowledge, skills, and understanding we need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy. They equip us for leadership in an interconnected world and help foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong.”
The peril is that the humanities are disappearing from our test-driven schools, imbued as they are with the fear that other nations are getting ahead of us in STEM education (science, technology, engineering, math) and fearful in the aftermath of the Great Recession that young people need job training more than mind expansion. We thus overlook the impact humanities education has on creating the kind of citizens who sustain our society.
As a long-time board member and former chair of The New York Council for the Humanities, and as a trustee of my beloved alma mater, St. Lawrence University (neither of whom I am representing here; right now I am merely a newly-minted cheerleader for Justice Souter), I have learned the importance of teaching and learning the humanities. Now, thanks to Justice Souter, I feel adequately prepared with the words for what I need to say. See what they can do for you.
On the Importance of Civic Literacy
“Fewer than one-third of adult Americans understand the basic constitutional structure of our government.”
“The ultimate condition of the survival of American democracy equals the growth in judgment of the American citizenry.”
“The value of the humanities comes in direct proportion to the amount we put into it. Our best thinking may lead to the wrong conclusion. A better approach might be to take into consideration opinions other than our own, people different from us. People who fail to see what we do are by no means fools.”
Quoting Judge Learned Hand’s 1944 “Spirit of Liberty” speech, Justice Souter said: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure it is right. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and other women.”
On Civic Ignorance and Disengagement
“Constitutional government cannot survive in the face of civic ignorance and disassociation from the process.”
“Only 28 per cent of the youth vote who had not attended college voted in the last presidential election.”
On Who We Need to Be
“I want responsible voters who will avoid hysteria and avoid ideology and not be too sure they are right, who will try to understand the minds of other men and women.”
About Why You Should Do Something
“The objective we all share is a habit of mind, an intellectual character, and the point of its public value is that it happens to also be the intellectual character needed to preserve a government of constitutional values that we have inherited, and I believe is at risk.”
“We cannot preserve a notion of liberty without humane learning and humane teaching.”
Advice To Those Starting Out In The Law
“Do not drop the humanities.” Justice Souter bemoaned what he called, “the shift of the profession from a profession to a business,” calling it “a much less humane profession” now. “The last thing I want for the profession is fewer (lawyers) with a background in humanities. That’s what the law needs.”
The Humanities Amid STEM-emphasis and Testing
“Humanities can engage in some virtuous subversion. Work in civics teaching in the reading.”
What You Can Do
“Take up the cause. Write letters to the editor. Op-eds.”
“We are not asking for favors. We are asking for the survival of the United States as we know it.”
Justice Souter is part of a dedicated group of New Hampshire residents who are fighting to reinvigorate our dedication to civics. To learn more about how to reinvigorate the role of civics in our lives, start here, with the National Endowment for the Humanities New Hampshire Federal/State partnership site, reporting on his endeavors.
- If you are a New York state resident, become a member of The New York Council for the Humanities, whose mission is “to help all New Yorkers become thoughtful participants in our communities by promoting critical inquiry, cultural understanding, and civic engagement.” It is not a state agency. It needs and deserves your support.
- Like The New York Council for the Humanities on Facebook
- Follow The New York Council for the Humanities on Twitter
- Join your state Council for the Humanities
- Support the NEH
Are you with me? Then share this post, link to the above, and use your words in defense of the humanities.