A Message from Dean J. Scott Miller. This message appeared in the Spring 2021 Humanities alumni magazine.
Imagine that we lived in a society, like the world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where utilitarian thinking prevailed to such an extent that not only books but all artifacts of the humanities were outlawed. A special unit of “anti-hum” forces begins its systematic sweep of neighborhoods, and you have heard that they are soon to arrive on your doorstep, ready to burn anything that smacks of the humanities and arrest you for its possession. When that team arrives at your home, what evidences would they find? Would you be in danger?
I was recently helping with the disposition of goods left behind in the home of a dear colleague who just passed away. His was a modest home, nothing palatial about its architecture, yet from the front door to the back corner of a basement closet it was filled with evidence of a life devoted to art, music, sculpture, travel, great thoughts, good food, gardening, conversation, and more. Books lined the walls of nearly every room in the house. I marveled at the bounty of human achievement represented by the contents of his home that belied the quip Todd Britsch, former dean of the College, was known to make on occasion: “An education in the humanities prepares you to enjoy things you will never be able to afford!” My colleague lived a rich home life, not through possessing a host of rare art works, but, rather, by the particular blessing experienced—in this era of mechanical and digital reproduction—of being able to seek out and surround himself with the highest of human accomplishment.
“Brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” 1 When we engage in the quest alluded to in Paul’s admonition, it changes us for the better. A life led in the manner of my colleague, devoted to the virtuous, the lovely, the praiseworthy, the well-reported, is both satisfying and edifying because, as we familiarize ourselves with the greatest works of humanity, we cannot help but share that remarkable heritage with those we love and those around us. Such edification is not confined to the world of art or books, but points toward a revolution and enhancement of the very nature of human interaction and personal development.
An education in the humanities can enrich the quality of everyday life, even in difficult times. For example, although she is Italian-American and we tend to enjoy a Mediterranean diet, my wife, who uses the humanities every day, may respond to a mundane question—“What should we fix for dinner?”—by choosing to break out of our comfort zone, scrambling through cookbooks collected over decades. Once she settles on a cuisine—say, Korean food—and a menu—chicken stew—the adventure really begins, filling the kitchen with the pungent, pleasant aroma and tactile pleasure of cutting fresh ginger root, adding sesame oil to the broth, and boiling the rice cakes. While we cook, she quotes the late Edna Lewis, granddaughter of a freed slave and authority on Southern cuisine: “One of the greatest pleasures of my life has been that I have never stopped learning about good cooking and good food.”2 When everything is prepared, we sit to sup and reflect upon some of our favorite meals eaten in Asia, followed later by some time online looking into the history of Korean food and learning more about contemporary Korean fusion chefs. (On other days, we order takeout and talk about how our children are doing out in the wider world.)
How can we use the humanities to translate the contents of our home into something that enriches our lives and the human condition? What media do we choose to bring into our home (and how do we select it)? What technology do we employ (and, as we acquire the latest gadget, are we thinking about who assembled it as well as the genius who invented it)? How do we choose and use the flood of information that comes into our home (and are we able to verify it and understand its rhetorical context)? How did we choose our home in the first place, and how do we furnish and decorate it? How does our study of the humanities add value to the way we approach and cherish family stories and foster the use of narrative, poetry, and other verbal skills at home? What value do our cultural discoveries bring into our homes?
Like nation or state, home is an idea, a construct that derives power from communal imagination. Since the humanities invite us to imagine the best of humankind, home can reflect some of our highest ideals, personally and as a species. It is a place that is magnified by all the humanity we bring to it.
This article was included in the Spring 2021 issue of the Humanities alumni magazine.
1. Philippians 4:8, New American Standard Bible translation.
2. Edna Lewis, In Pursuit of Flavor (A. A. Knopf, 2013), page 7.