Ideas for Framing the Humanities

Reframing Ideas (new ways to name, describe, and position the humanities for public impact)

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Alan's daughter

Alan’s daughter wearing gift of her grandmother’s Chinese silk jacket. Discovering other cultures and roots without ever hearing the word “humanities.”
  1. “Humanities for Children” (suggested by Alan Liu): — We do not expect 4Humanities to be read by children, of course.  But creating statements, stories, examples, pictures, videos, etc., that frame the idea and value of the humanities for a child is a powerful way to force a radical reframing of the humanities–where “radical” has the sense of “root.”  Undercutting higher-level institutional, political, cultural, and other ramifications of the humanities, the root is what the humanities look like to those who who are non-specialists (children are a prime example).  A secondary, equally powerful dimension of this idea is familiar to anyone who has been a parent.  However jaded one might have become about the world (in this case: the humanities), having a child, nephew, niece, or grandchild has the reinvigorating effect of allowing one to see the world again through a child’s eyes.  One sees the child seeing the world–a second-degree  freshness (like discovering climbing trees or a favorite toy all over again) that is a real “reframing.”  So the challenge is: can we enact, present, or say something about the humanities that does not even use the word “humanities” to epitomize what we are about, and that will allow the public–like seeing a child seeing the world–to see the humanities afresh?
  2. “Humanities as ‘Grand Challenge'” (suggested by Alan Liu) — [from something I wrote recently]: “there is not a single “grand challenge” announced by the Obama administration, the Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative, the U. S. National Academy of Engineering, and other agencies or foundations in the areas of energy, environment, biomedicine, food, water, education, and so on that does not require humanistic involvement. All these issues have a necessary cultural dimension, whether as cause or effect; and all, therefore, need the public service of humanist and, increasingly, digital-humanist participants.”
  3. “Where Humanity is Missing, the Humanities are Missing” (suggested by Dan Reynolds) — The slogan could be something different, but I think the idea might be a useful one.  We could think about common experiences in day-to-day life that are made unpleasant, inconvenient, off-putting, or even dangerous as a result of self-centered behavior/a lack of empathetic understanding.  This seems to me to be a good position from which to make the case that the humanities have something very important and practical to offer everyone.
  4. Humanities for Life (suggested by Ann Taves) –- I like Alan’s “Humanities for Children” and this idea, like his, frames the humanities apart from the university and disciplinary concerns. The “for Life” frame, however, has multiple meanings that allow us to highlight several key values, which is a feature I particularly like. Thus, “for Life”
    • in the sense of enhanced life (a fulfilling life, a full life, a creative life),
    • in the sense of the lifespan (a whole life, an entire life) – life long learning
    • in the sense of all life (for life itself, for all living things)

    I could imagine all sorts of video clips — kids putting on a puppet show, archeologists bringing the dead to life, elderly jazz musicians improvising, a weaver weaving juxtaposed with a spider spinning a beautiful web — all ending with the tagline: “Support the Humanities for Life.”

  5. The Humanities Define Who We Are and What We Value (suggested by Harold Marcuse) — Today I was listening to something on NPR (12/11/11), but it might have been a ttbook episode I recorded some time ago. The speaker was talking about how arts funding is the first thing that is cut from education budgets, but that when we look back at past cultures, the primary thing we’re interested in is their artistic/cultural production. Thus an idea: historically, the humanities define who we are and what we value.
  6. Humanities Carnival (suggested by Claudio Fogu) — Having spent a couple of sessions on “‘ideas” and frames I wanted to throw out there a suggestion for action aimed at our students, and at practicing in our teaching some of that “trans,” “inter,” “con” sense of collegiality that some of us think as a core value to the humanities as a whole. I was thinking that each of us could dedicate 10-15 minutes of our weekly lecture the week before Mardi-Gras to a story, a poem, an image, anything having to do with Carnival from the pov of the cultural-linguistic-geographical-historical-disciplinary context we inhabit. I hope it will not be seen as presumptuous of me to think that Carnival-like expressions can be found in “most” cultures, and that most of our students ignore that connective tissue. Anyway, the idea is that if we begin small but it works, we could little by little select themes that each quarter we all insert in our classes in a “human-it-ties week.”

5 thoughts on “Ideas for Framing the Humanities

  1. Today I was listening to something on NPR (12/11/11), but it might have been a ttbook episode I recorded some time ago. The speaker was talking about how arts funding is the first thing that is cut from education budgets, but that when we look back at past cultures, the primary thing we’re interested in is their artistic/cultural production. Thus an idea: historically, the humanities define who we are and what we value.

  2. Humanities for Life – I like Alan’s “Humanities for Children” and this idea, like his, frames the humanities apart from the university and disciplinary concerns. The “for Life” frame, however, has multiple meanings that allow us to highlight several key values, which is a feature I particularly like. Thus, “for Life”
    • in the sense of enhanced life (a fulfilling life, a full life, a creative life),
    • in the sense of the lifespan (a whole life, an entire life) – life long learning
    • in the sense of all life (for life itself, for all living things)
    I could imagine all sorts of video clips — kids putting on a puppet show, archeologists bringing the dead to life, elderly jazz musicians improvising, a weaver weaving juxtaposed with a spider spinning a beautiful web — all ending with the tagline: “Support the Humanities for Life.”

  3. “Humanities Carnival” (suggested by Claudio Fogu): Having spent a couple of sessions on ‘ideas’ and frames I wanted to throw out there a suggestion for action aimed at our students, and at practicing in our teaching some of that ‘trans’, ‘inter’, ‘con’ sense of collegiality that some of us think as a core value to the humanities as a whole. I was thinking that each of us could dedicate 10-15 minutes of our weekly lecture the week before Mardi-Gras to a story, a poem, an image, anything having to do with Carnival from the pov of the cultural-linguistic-geographical-historical-disciplinary context we inhabit. I hope it will not be seen as presumptuous of me to think that Carnival-like expressions can be found in ‘most’ cultures, and that most of our students ignore that connective tissue. Anyway, the idea is that if we begin small but it works, we could little by little select themes that each quarter we all insert in our classes in a ‘human-it-ties week’.

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