Friday, March 7, 2014

Recapping the Humanitini

Two Panel Discussions Demonstrate the Continued Importance of the Humanities.

By Maria Galiano

Last week, while the streets of D.C. experienced a small preview of the weekend's winter storm, happy hour met the humanities at the council’s first Humanitini event of 2014, “Who Needs the Humanities Anyway?” The event opened with a screening of Lance Kramer's The Scholar and the Sailor, a short film that tells the story of how a professor’s book served as an inspiration for Greg White, a former prison inmate. Kramer was then joined by White and Dr. W. Jefferey Bolster for the first panel discussion of the evening. 

After getting his hands on Dr. W Jefferey Bolster's book, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail, White decided to write a letter to Bolster to share his life experiences including his service in the United States Navy. In his first letter, White mentioned how reading the pages of Black Jacks reminded him of how much he missed being at sea, and how the stories of African American sailors carving out their own sense of freedom encouraged him to incorporate seafaring into his post-incarceration life. One of the most inspiring moments of Thursday's Humanitini was Bolster’s statement that the humanities allowed him and White to connect, and that the connection was mutually beneficial.  Another was White’s reminder that no cloud should ever be too dark to keep you from sailing your ship of life.  

Following this poignant of example of the power of the humanities disciplines, the focus of the event shifted to examine the state of the humanities more broadly. The second panel brought on Lacey Dunham of the effervescent youth creative writing non-profit 826DC, Esther Mackintosh of the Federation of State Humanities Councils, Tia Brown McNair of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and Nafisa Isa of Busboys and Poets

This enlightening panel discussion, made it clear that the humanities have been, and continue to be, an important tool in our present-day globalized world. The humanities disciplines link us and allow us to communicate. Panelists also addressed the subject of the employment rate for liberal arts/humanities majors, noting that many employers seek the research and analytical expertise gained through these areas of study. Though it is commonly contended that the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines are the only sure path to employment opportunities after graduation, the panelists reassured the audience that students who are learned in the humanities acquire essential skills that are required both in and outside the workplace. Kramer, returning for the second panel noted that while the cutting edge in the STEM disciplines changes as technologies develop, humans will likely interact with each other in consistent ways for the foreseeable future. 

One most of the most time-tested debates against the humanities disciplines is that their study is reserved for the children of the wealthy; those who have less need to learn a practical skill. Isa countered this argument by calling attention to the humanities disciplines' unique ability to give a voice to the underrepresented. The ability to understand the, often invisible, human-made systems that guide our lives can prevent those systems from become intrusive, unfair, and oppressive. 

The panel concluded with the reminder that our focus should not be on the metrics of employment rates, but rather on the long-term benefits that the humanities provides us.

So who needs the humanities anyway? Well, as our Humanitini event demonstrated, we all do!