Council Chair Explains That Humanities Are a Necessity

Council Chair, Dr. Townsend Ludington

The Humanities Are Essential

By Townsend Ludington

Amidst a culture addicted to the antics of celebrities real or fake, whether they are White House party crashers, wacky politicians, lionized (or maybe it's tigerized) athletes, or money magnates craving to make the next billion bucks, it is a pleasure to read an article such as "Humanities efforts net grants" in the Dec. 8 issue of The Herald-Sun.

The piece highlighted two local projects that the North Carolina Humanities Council will support: documentation of "a centuries-old public arts celebration, the Fiesta de la Posada," as well as of "a traditional African American gospel choir of the Zion Grove Church of Christ." Additionally, the Humanities Council is funding an examination of the photography of the well-known North Carolinian, Hugh Morton, whose pictures powerfully capture the history and culture of our state.

Granted we are only talking peanuts from the point of view of the big spenders, but such projects are the sorts of humanistic endeavors that help us to understand ourselves, our histories, and the things that give meaning to our lives. It may be briefly entertaining to hear about morally corrupt couple who are carrying on in an attempt to win a spot on a "reality" show – itself a fake – but what truly matters are the beliefs and traditions wrapped up in a Fiesta, or in the music of a gospel choir, or in the images of a skillful photographer.

Too often the humanities: history, literature, philosophy, the visual arts, music – all that we term the liberal arts – are considered of minor significance, add-ons to our daily lives where practical matters seem all-important and are what make things work.

A week or so ago I had coffee at a local cafe with some friends: a doctor, two engineers, a scientist and an editor. I asked them what they thought was the role of the humanities given a widespread concern these days that the humanities are becoming less and less relevant as we emphasize science, technology and business more and more. All of these people, accomplished in their various fields, asserted the humanities were what grounded their lives and provided understanding about what it means to be a person. To the scientist "humanities" mean not simply entertainment, although that is okay, but learning about community and the obligations we have to each other that we have to relearn and relearn, while history reminds us of our mistakes large and small as well as our successes.

It is not a how-to manual or a stock prospectus that helps us to understand greed or evil or mortality. Rather, it is someone such as the poet Robert Frost, who wrote about the cruel barrier that grew between a young wife and her husband when he buried then1 dead infant right outside their small farmhouse. Frost it was, the lonely individual, who came upon two roads that diverged in the woods and later wrote, "I look the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference."

Or it is the splendid writer Langston Hughes speaking of rivers and musing, "My soul has grown deep like the rivers." Or it is the South African novelist Nadine Gordimer, winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for literature, who has written:

"People make the mistake of regarding commitment as something solely political. A writer is committed to trying to make sense of life. It's a search. So there is that commitment first of all: the commitment to honesty and determination to go as deeply into things as possible, and to dredge up what little bit of truth you with your talent can then express."     

Whether we find the tools through literature, philosophy, history, or another of the humanities, we need what only they can provide, the means to comprehend the world, however strange it may often seem, in which we exist. Such understanding is what can lead toward a common humanity.

Townsend Ludington is chair of the North Carolina Humanities Council and professor emeritus of American studies and English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.