The Humanities make us rich. #29 of 100 Things We’ve Learned:

“The Humanities make us RICH.” Or so goes the sentiment on my morning tea mug.

October is once again National Arts and Humanities Month.It just so happens that I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of the humanities over the last few weeks.

What are the humanities?

According to the National Endowment for the Humanities, as described in the 1965 National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act:

“The term ‘humanities’ includes, but is not limited to, the study of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.”

The humanities are essential to Cause & Effect Inc.

In an evaluation of our work, we asked a colleague to interview a number of our clients. Our clients told her that one of the things that they appreciated about working with us was that we “got it.”

While clients meant our understanding of their organizational challenges, they also mentioned our ability to appreciate and comprehend the complexity of the societal issues that they faced.

In college, I was a geography major (concentration in urban social) with a strong sociology background. Jon was a history major with literature right behind. You might say we studied the humanities.

And while there are days that I long for more of an engineering or science background, I have always been grateful for the systems perspective that college studies helped me develop. I was constantly challenged to consider the interrelationships between political systems, markets, history, culture, art, climate, habitat, food production and more. To this day, we bring that approach to our work with clients – whether we are writing, facilitating strategic planning, or framing a strong fund development program.

The humanities provide the tools that help us make meaning of our world and our lives.

Just over the last few weeks, it seems that I’ve been especially reminded how the humanities manifest in our daily lives.

Last month, Lizzi Ross, the former director of adult programming at the ICA in Boston, spoke to the students in the class I teach at Brown. In describing how she went about designing programming to enable us to appreciate art that isn’t pretty pictures, Lizzi explained that contemporary art requires us to call on our knowledge of history, contemporary culture, literature, art, science and more.

“Ah, the humanities,” I thought.

Last Wednesday, I attended  “What Now? 1932 – The Highlander Center Opens Its Doors,” a live taping from Action Speaks Radio.  The premise of Action Speaks is to take an “under appreciated day in American History” and look at it through a contemporary lens.  That show talked about the popular education approach of the Highlander Research and Education Center, which encourages activists from multiple walks of life to explore their personal experiences and connect them to larger historical and societal issues. “That’s the humanities in action,” I whispered to my neighbor.  Rosa Parks, Andrew Young, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are just a few of the “graduates” of Highlander.

A love of the humanities can be demonstrated beyond textbooks and scholarly works.

Tonight I’m heading to the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities’ celebration of the humanities and their contribution to life in RI. I’m especially excited as I sat on the committee that nominated tonight’s awardees. A lifetime achievement award goes to cartoonist Don Bousquet, whose humorous cartoons have been lampooning Rhode Islanders for decades. How is this the humanities, you might ask? Through his cartoons, Bousquet has been chronicling the history and culture of Rhode Islanders. I can see future studiers of RI history pouring through his cartoons, in the way we now study a Thomas Nast or Walt Kelly.

The Tom Roberts Prize for Creative Achievement in the Humanities goes to the Living History Program which trains high school students to reenact the history of the 14th Heavy Artillery, Rhode Island’s Black Civil War regiment. In a recent article in the Providence Journal, Rob Goldman, the director was quoted as saying: “I hear; I forget. I see; I remember. I do; I understand.”

According to the Journal article: ” Goldman makes his regiment members ‘do’ the Civil War, and let the learning — about race, culture and class, about equality and morality — happen naturally. [Goldman says] ‘You’re not going to hook kids this way with a book.’ ”

Without the humanities, we end up with a vast wasteland — similar to most AM Talk Radio.

I admit it. I’m a talk radio addict. Talk radio is on in my car and from the moment we wake in the morning till we go to sleep at night. But I just can’t stand listening to AM Talk Radio. No, I’m a National Public Radio addict.

Try as I might to listen to enrich my own world experience, I just can’t stand listening to minutes and minutes of empty content on AM talk radio. Where is the complex historical, social, or cultural content? Where are the journalists, the historians, the sociologists, the philosophers, the artists, the architects, the musicologists, and more that I am treated to each day on NPR stations. I’m just amazed (and saddened) that so many people can listen for hours to the same simpleminded statements over and over again without hungering for some background, some texture, some complexity to the bombast.

So take a moment this Arts and Humanities month to appreciate the humanities. You’ll be much richer for it.

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