May 1994

What It Means To Be Human

During the summer of 1979 I had one of those learning experiences that has helped increase my perspective and understanding about what it means to be human.

It was a very warm day. I arrived home about 5:30 p.m. and walked through the front door, directly to the kitchen, got a glass, and put it under the faucet and let the water run over the glass, and over my hand, hoping that it would cool at least one more degree. In front of me was our kitchen window, facing west so the levelor blinds were mostly closed to protect the room from the heat of the summer afternoon sun. As I raised my head and drank the barely cool water, something caught my eye through the blinds–a puff of white flashing skyward. I paused, wondering what I had seen, finished my drink and decided to go out on our deck and see what it might have been. As I approached the edge of the deck, I heard a snap and once again a white puff flew skyward just in front of the edge of the deck. I watched as a white ball of cloth reached an apex of 50 or 60 feet, paused, and started down, opening into a small 2 foot by 2 foot square parachute. As the parachute floated down past the edge of the deck, I looked into the eyes of George, the family gerbil. As he hung from the parachute, he looked terrified! His eyes were pleading with me to do something. As I watched below, a small figure in white T-shirt and shorts raced out, caught the par rodent and dashed back under the deck.

I might pause here and say that for George, my 10-year old son Mike was the god of his earth. Mike created George’s days and nights, provided his home sustenance and trials. I believe that the bulk of George’s dreams and revelations come from god Mike and that even his miracle of flight, in some form, was granted to this tiny creature by my son.

To continue my story, the look on George’s face drew from me feelings of compassion and responsibility. I flew down the stairs, out the back door, and confronted my son who stood before me left hand in the front pocket of his shorts, right hand drawn around behind himself in a self imposed hammer lock.

“What”, I asked, “is going on?” Parents ask stupid questions sometimes to attempt to extract premature apologies from their children. In such a situation, Mike generally had two answers, one being “nothing” and the other being “stuff.” I got the “stuff” answer. Mike had harnessed George up in his homemade parachute and launched him skyward using his homemade flipper. It was a very good flipper. I then started down the dialogue path that would lead to my tiny enlightenment. I asked Mike how he would feel if a 40 foot giant took him, harnessed him up and launched him 200 feet into the sky using a giant catapult. “Great!” he exclaimed!

For Michael, he was simply living the golden rule–do unto others–I learned quickly that there were at least three individual perspectives involved in this little drama. George’s perspective, a perspective of sheer terror, a somewhat one dimensional egocentric perspective after all. There were then, two other perspectives, my perspective and my son’s perspective. Mine to save the innocent animal from heart failure, and Mike’s to celebrate life with George by creating for him as much joy and exhilaration as possible. By reason, each of us was taking others into consideration. It is that, finally for me about the humanities–that I take others, humans and human values into consideration. I believe the humanities disciplines demand that continuing examination.

The definition for the humanities is debated continually. At the University of Utah, the College of Humanities consists of the departments of English, Languages and Literature, Philosophy, History, and Communication. The College also houses the writing and linguistics program, the Middle East Center and the Humanities Center.

When Congress established the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965, it identified the humanities by a listing of scholarly disciplines: “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 the social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods.” While it was doubtless necessary to draw boundaries in this way, it is misleading to regard the humanities basically as a set of academic disciplines or even more restricting, as a set of “great books.” They include, rather, certain ways of thinking–of inquiring, evaluating, judging, finding, and articulating meaning. They include the developed human talents from which texts and disciplines spring. They are, taken together, the necessary resources of a reflective approach to life. The value of a reflective approach can be best appreciated by considering the alternative: a life un-illuminated by imagination, uninformed by history, unguided by reasoning–in short, the “unexamined life” that Socrates described as not worth living. Where the humanities are vigorous, action follows from and is guided by reflection. It is their capacity to change, elevate, and improve both the common civic life and individual lives that make the cultivation of the humanities important to me.

I offer the following brief observations on the character and value of the humanities:

1. The humanities have both a personal and a civic dimension

They bring meaning to the life of the individual and help define the self. They also make possible the shared reflection, communication, and participation upon which a democratic community depends. They are the basis of reasoned civic discourse; and they are centrally concerned with the relation between the individual and the community.

2. The humanities take the long perspective

There are no breakthroughs in the humanities, and no final answers to the kinds of questions they ask. They relate present danger to past danger, present injustice to past injustice, our tragedy to old tragedy, our hopes and fears to past ones. The great questions of the humanities are timeless, but they require continual redefinition and reexamination because the old answers and the old methods may no longer serve.

3. The humanities may be and often are disturbers of the peace

They ask troubling questions, heighten consciousness, start revolutions in the mind, challenge the status quo, and raise expectations for ourselves and society. The humanities should be cultivated, not for intellectual adornment, even less to legitimate existing social and political institutions, but as instruments of self-discovery, of critical understanding, and creative social imagination. They are the enemies of passivity and the abettors of vigorous intellectual life.

4. The humanities have a moral dimension

They foster awareness of the complexity of human conduct and disdain simplistic judgments of good and evil. The claim may be made, if cautiously, that study of the humanities enlarges sympathies toward other peoples and cultures, other times and places. Yet knowledge of the humanities is no guarantee of humaneness; and the one should never be confused with the other.

5. The humanities cultivate critical intelligence

They may not be very good at “solving” practical problems, but they develop the capacity to evaluate and judge what is a necessary part of the solutions. The humanities involve what Matthew Arnold called the “free play of the mind on all subjects it touches.” Their study develops habits of mind applicable to virtually all human endeavors.

Today, it is fashionable to denigrate the humanities disciplines, to charge them with considerable responsibility for a perceived breakdown in traditional moral and social values, and to regard them as in a perhaps fatal crisis.

The humanities, we have been hearing from former Secretary of Education William Bennett, from Allen Bloom, from the popular press, and from some quite serious journals and books, are suffering from a failure of confidence, of coherence, and particularly of nerve to defend and disseminate the great traditions of philosophy, literature, and the arts. Lynne Cheney’s Humanities in America: “Report to the President, the Congress, and the American People” is the latest, but perhaps the most politically significant of these attacks. Our society, with a tradition of anti-intellectualism and interest in science, engineering, economics, has been finding it convenient to indict the humanities for their intellectual weaknesses in attempting to engage practical moral and social issues; they have, so the charge goes, lapsed from the Arnoldian ideals of seeing the object as it really is and of learning the best that has been thought and said.

Allan Bloom’s disturbingly popular The Closing of the American Mind seems, for example, to attribute major moral and social changes in America to the failure of the humanities to insist on and teach the great philosophical tradition from Plato through Rousseau. Neither Bloom nor any of the other major denigrators of the condition of the humanities disciplines in higher education attends to the possibility that changes in curriculum as well as changes in the social and moral structure of our society might reflect America’s changing position in the world economic community or the emergence of non-Western powers on the world scene.

To many who have devoted their lives to work in the humanities the indictment seems peculiarly off the mark. It is not that the humanities are cheerily unaware of major problems: the question of what to teach remains a critical and still unresolved one, as does the problem of the varied backgrounds and academic preparations of our students. But such difficulties are not new, and they well predate the decade of the 1960’s when, according to recent detractors, higher education lapsed from its austere and classical standards. It is, then, particularly ironic that the humanities are receiving their most severe criticism at a moment when for many of us their significance and strength have never been greater.

In fact, precisely those things now identified as failings in the humanities actually indicate enlivening transformations. The characteristic approach of the humanities has always been to ask questions. At present, teachers of the humanities are asking questions about everything: about the “canon,” about the great ideas of the West, about curriculum, about the structure and possibilities of language itself, about the organization of knowledge, and about the hierarchies that govern our intellectual and political lives. Question asking is inevitably uncomfortable, and satisfactory answers, as the great traditions of the humanities from Plato forward have vitally demonstrated, are difficult to come by and usually prove to be transitory. Teachers of the humanities tend to encourage that discomfort and find it a source of creativity: it could not have been easy to sit at Socrates’ feet.

Indeed, while American universities once took a back seat to European universities with a tradition of strength in the Humanities–Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Bologna, Berlin–this is no longer the case. Our best institutions are as strong in the humanities as the best institutions in the world. And the American system is the envy of other nations, for its contribution to scholarship and research and the liveliness of its educational and intellectual activities.

Still, no sector of the population is more disturbed than teachers of the humanities about signs of “cultural illiteracy” and even literal illiteracy among students. It is, after all, in the interest of humanities teachers that more people care more about art, philosophy, literature, and history. And no group of people is more likely than humanities teachers to be critical of what goes on in the humanities–indeed, most of the anecdotal material used against the humanities is provided by humanities professors themselves. It is the humanities scholars’ self-consciousness about their own achievements and methods that leads many critics to imagine that the humanities are in crisis when, in fact, that self-consciousness is one of the signs of their health. Plato notoriously began a radical criticism of the humanities in one of those texts–The Republic–routinely taken as essential to our understanding of the West.

We have currently at the humanities center a fellow working on understanding some specific concepts of the “everyday.” I find this a fascinating subject because, I feel that nearly all of my life is lived in an “everyday” context. It is that context, the everyday/human being part of my life that the humanities serves most completely as glue, as solvent, as catalyst and as agent to that which is my human component, what John Ciardi called, “the you in you”.

I would share some thoughts from Gary Holthaus, Director of the Center for the American West at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I will use his framework and interject thoughts of my own. Thought tinged with my Western (and west) roots.

Postmodernism and the Dryland Farmer by Gary H. Holthaus

We are unique in the West. Our universities are eastern, and behind that, European, institutions brought to the West. They represent an elite, intellectual, privileged people who know things that we don’t. As such they remind westerners of common insecurities about our own nature. We know we are on the geographical fringes of the culture, more familiar with rattlesnakes and cactus than with Perrida and deconstruction.

Unlike regions that have a history of support for the liberal arts, as is reflected in their numerous small private colleges, the West has always favored doers over thinkers. Small western towns often built a schoolhouse among their earliest developments, but it was more to attract additional settlers than because of esteem for education. Though some book learning was useful, too much was a liability.

The West’s history also features a boom/bust economy that may be inevitable in a region built on resource extraction. Although agriculture is risky everywhere, more benign rains afford a more stable farm culture in the Midwest and East than in the arid West. From fur to oil to agribusiness, the West’s economy has been at the mercy of forces outside the region. During the boom times higher education doesn’t have the priority we might wish; during the busts the decline in revenue hamstrings even those legislators who are committed to it. Thus the split between town and gown in the West sometimes seems like a bitter divorce.

I think it is hard to overestimate the width of the gulf. It is reflected in the number of state legislators who cut the university budget because it is not their priority and it will not hurt them with their constituents, and in the comments of the rancher who defines an academic as “a guy who can’t find his rear-end with both hands.” It is also reflected in the condescension exhibited by scholars who assume that there is a vast public out there which is only marginally literate, largely unthinking, and certainly in need of any culture we can bring its way.

Recently, sitting in a lecture on postmodernism, I was dazzled by the pyrotechnic language, but after a short time my mind turns away. I can appreciate the skill involved in creating such language, and I admire the silver-fluid use of it, but I finally realize that I do not admire what the language does. It manages to be both rich and sterile–rich on the surface and sterile underneath.

My mind drifts to Hank, a dryland farmer. What does he think about and how does he think about it? What does he know and how does he know it? He has an intellectual life too. His texts are not located in libraries, but they have some parallels with the scholar’s. He does read journals, and he talks with his colleagues; but his real texts are the land, his cows, his dryland grain. He reads those with the same disciplined skill that the scholar brings to her work. And his view of the culture is also limited. He is not all that appreciative of book learning, and his culture does not include much of the urban or the academic. He drives a couple of hundred miles to a town of 65,000 people to trade his pickup, and he stops while he is there, but he does not go to the library, the play, or the concert. If he goes to the theater, which is unlikely, it will be to see a movie, not a play.

The point here is not to denigrate one kind of knowing and elevate another. It is to show that there are different lives, with different knowings, and we must find the common ground between them. If we cannot do that, the humanities and our public programs in them will fail to involve a portion of the public we want to engage in thought and conversation. If we can find some grounds for mutual appreciation, then we may also find ways to heal the breech between town and gown. In my view what the scholar of postmodernism and Hank have in common is that both are humanists.

Hank’s frankly anti-intellectual attitude is unwarranted, for he might learn that Plato does indeed have something useful to say about the schoolboard, Title IX, the education of his daughters, and why he can’t get the county commissioners to fix the bridge. If he had time to know the scholar, he might learn what he does not get from our professional papers: that scholars too must grope toward tentative answers to the hard questions that rise when life strikes us a hard blow, and the answers are often couched in language that is fumbling, simple, and without great confidence.

By the same token, our sense of having superior knowledge, or the condescending view we sometimes exhibit toward “the great unwashed” who have no culture (so we must bring it to them), is also wrong. Though there may be many without our peculiar form of it, there are no people without culture. Life, not learning, thrusts Hank into the practice of the humanities as they consider the fundamental issues of life’s purpose and meaning every day.

In fact I was wrong to call his attitude “anti-intellectual.” Hank uses his intellect as we all do, bringing it to bear as best he can when life demands it. What he is “anti” is jargon and meandering obfuscation. He is opposed to the cuteness that sometimes afflicts our self-conscious display of how well educated we residents of academe are–a display that the academy often requires and the public invariable deplores. So Hank is, as we are, committed to intelligence, decidedly pro intellectual, and resolutely anti unessential academic rhetoric. He has a good eye for the latter, and like the boy pointing at the emperor, will call us on our nakedness, though he rarely bothers to point a find; he simply stays away. He is not a slow learner; one or two meaningless meetings are enough to convince him that there is nothing in university scholarship he needs. If he does participate in a discussion at the university, he may convince scholars that there is nothing he can contribute to their erudition.

But we do need each other. Rooted as he is in such a different life, Hank’s comments sometimes seem to scholars to come from left field; we are disconcerted and may have a hard time tracking his thought. If we dismiss it therefore, and if, for the same reasons, he dismisses ours, our thinking our dialogue about serious issues fail to gain the richness that is possible. We need each other for the conversation to have the complexity and depth that match the questions life asks us. If we can learn to listen, as we ask Hank to listen, then we all learn something.

Hank is not bent on remaining ignorant, as we sometimes believe in our disappointment and frustration at his refusal to attend to our offerings. Rather he is bent, as we are, on finding some meaning in a life that is puzzling, demanding, and filled with grief and epiphanies. In that he is one with us all, and like our scholarly friends, a colleague and companion worthy of attention, good to be around. For me then, like Hank, it is the personal micro enlightenments and epiphanies that make my personal adjacencies to the humanities most meaningful.

In conclusion, I would like to share three or four of those epiphanies with you. Rather than explain why they were important to me, I would hope they might suggest a new, if small, revelation for you.

Preceding the last Sterling M. McMurrin Lecture on Religion, I sat across the table from Sterling at lunch discussing his lecture and then turned the subject to Wallace Stegner. Sterling knew Wally of course, not well, but well enough. “I liked Stegner because he admired Utah. I like people who like Utah,” he said. Sterling then paused with spoon in mid-air and said, “As a matter of fact, I don’t much give a damn for people who don’t like Utah.”

I loved Stegner because he helped make me proud of being just what I was–a boy, now a man, from Utah. I have read every word he has published. I was devastated at this death knowing there would be no more new “Recapitulations” or “Angles of Repose.” I will never forget my first reading of the Overture to Sound of Mountain Water.

Overture to the Sound of Mountain Water by Wallace Stegner

“I discovered mountain rivers late, for I was a prairie child, and knew only flatland and dryland until we toured the Yellowstone country in 1920, loaded with all the camp beds, auto tents, grub-boxes, and auxiliary water and gas cans that 1920 thought necessary. Our road between Great Falls, Montana, and Salt Lake City was the rutted track that is now Highway 89. Beside a marvelous torrent, one of the first I ever saw, we camped several days. That was Henry’s Fork of the Snake.

“I didn’t know that it rose on the west side of Targhee Pass and flowed barely a hundred miles, through two Idaho counties, before joining the Snake near Rexburg; or that in 1810 Andrew Henry built on its bank near modern St. Anthony the first American post west of the continental divide. The divide itself meant nothing to me. My imagination was not stretched by the wonder of the parted waters, the Yellowstone rising only a few miles eastward to flow out toward the Missouri, the Mississippi, the Gulf, while this bright pounding stream was starting through its thousand miles of canyons to the Columbia and the Pacific.

“All I knew was that it was pure delight to be where the land lifted in peaks and plunged in canyons, and to sniff air thin, spray-cooled, full of pine and spruce smells, and to be so close-seeming to the improbable indigo sky. I gave my heart to the mountains the minute I stood beside this river with its spray in my face and watched it thunder into foam, smooth to green glass over sunken rocks, shatter to foam again. I was fascinated by how it sped by and yet was always there; its roar shook both the earth and me.

“When the sun dropped over the rim the shadows chilled sharply; evening lingered until foam on water was ghostly and luminous in the near-dark. Alders caught in the current sawed like things alive, and the noise was louder. It was rare and comforting to waken late and hear the undiminished shouting of the water in the night. And at sunup it was still there, powerful and incessant, with the slant sun tangled in its rainbow spray, the grass blue with wetness, and the air heady as ether and scented with campfire smoke.

“By such a river it is impossible to believe that one will ever be tired or old. Every sense applauds it. Taste it, feel its chill on the teeth: it is purity absolute. Watch its racing current, its steady renewal of force: it is transient and eternal. And listen again to its sounds: get far enough away so that the noise of falling tons of water does not stun the ears, and hear how much is going on underneath–a whole symphony of smaller sounds, hiss and splash and gurgle, the small talk of side channels, the whisper of blown and scattered spray gathering itself and beginning to blow again, secret and irresistible, among the wet rocks.”

Early in married life I had one of those remarkable experiences that can bless a parent’s life.

I was in the state of near sleep that parents with very young children experience. At perhaps 2:30 or 3:00 AM I had the sense I was being watched. In the eerie glow of a winter’s night when snow and moon create more light than usual, I sensed I was being watched. I turned in the bed to face my son Chris, age 4, eye to eye, though the eye’s axis were perpendicular. He stared at me then said, “I’m hungry.” With parental care and concern I said, “Get out or I will break your leg.” He persisted. We had Cheerios. Then putting him back to bed he insisted on a story. “We just had a story 5 hours ago,” I reminded. He persisted. “You tell me a story, it’s your turn,” I said.

There followed this remarkable little tale. At least this one time I was smart enough to capture it the next day.

“My name is Chris, and just the other day we were going on a trip–just Daddy and me, you see. And it was going to be very nice and an awful lot of fun because he called me partner, and whenever he does that (you know, calls me partner), we always have a wonderful time.

“We bought a very old station wagon so that it would break down. When things break, I have to help Daddy fix them, and that is very nice.

“We left in the middle of the night. Daddy woke me up and said, “It’s time to go, old partner. Let’s get dressed.” So we did and had a banana for breakfast.

“The old station wagon broke before we left, but we fixed it and started to drive to the mountains. The day came and we drove into the trees. They were so thick that it got dark right in the daytime.

“The road got so narrow that pretty soon we had to stop. It was dark, and there were lots of beasts and animals and things outside–but just Daddy and me in the car.

“You know the glove box in a regular car–well, in our station wagon it’s a stove, and I fixed dinner, and we had a cheeseburger with french fries, root beer, and another banana for dessert.

“Then we got out because it was light again. We had four flat tires, and Daddy said, ‘Partner, we’d better get to work and fix these tires!’ So we did, and I helped.

“Then we got back in the car again because it was dark. The seats had turned to wolf fur, and there were seven blankets to get under while the beasts and animals came out. Daddy laughed and got under the covers too, and we waited for it to be light again because–you know what–we had four flat tires again! And I had to help, ’cause Daddy called me his partner–and partners always help their Dads!”

Finally, a simple western poem by John Sterling Harris, awakens me to ideas and feelings about myself.

The Assassination of Emma Gray

Old Jerome, as the local story goes,
Was a keeper of many pigs,
But he kept them kindly
With love and tender regard
Of the kind men often feel
For horses and dogs and even women.

Now anyone who has tried to love a pig
Knows such men are rare.

Jerome’s pigs were pampered pigs
Who got the richest swill in town;
Their pens were cleaner than his house,
And he fed them barley from his hand–
Not for love of future bacon and ham
But just for the love of pigs.

His Berkshires followed him about like dogs,
And he thought it no insult to his neighbors
To give their names to his hogs;
Each pig had a name and knew it
And came when it was called–
Amos Bowen, Charlie Pollard, Jamie Hall.

But even Jerome understood
That the use of a pig won’t buy the feed;
Oh, he tried to make them pay,
Selling some of the weaners off,
But he always sold too few
And kept too many at the trough.

Ed Lee, his neighbor, was a practical man
Who saw pigs as sausage and chops;
To him the waste of good pork flesh
Was a sin against the Lord,
But his helpful suggestions of slaughter
Jerome rebuffed, deferred, or ignored.

One of the pigs was Emma Gray
A large and ancient Berkshire sow
So old and fat she could hardly walk;
Jerome had saved her twenty years before
From a sow that ate the rest of the litter,
And he had raised her on a bottle.

The squirming, squealing, hairless thing
Had slept in a box by her master’s bed
Until she could take her place at the trough,
And Jerome, remembering a schoolboy crush
On a girl, a prominent matron now,
Had named the piglet Emma Gray.

When the bottle-fed baby grew
Into a strong young sow,
Like a father he led her down the lane
To Wetzel’s Duroc Jersey boar and then
Twice a year he attended at the births
And gave each newborn pig a name.

Now Emma Gray was getting very old;
She’d had no brood that spring–
Nor the two before if the truth were told–
The weaners and the young Poland China boar
Crowded her away from the feeding trough,
But Jerome fed her by hand as he had before.

Now anyone who has tried to love a pig
Knows such men are rare.

Ed Lee had said she must be killed–
Said he’d do it for a side of bacon,
Speculated on the lard she’d render;
He persuaded and he nagged
And he juggled fancy numbers
Until at last Jerome gave in.

On the appointed day Ed built a fire
Under a fifty gallon drum
To heat the scalding water;
He scoured down the rending kettle, honed
The scrapers, rigged the hoist, and as he
Stropped the killing knife, nodded to Jerome.

Jerome then called to Emma Gray
Who came and leaned against his leg
And rubbed with affection or to ease an itch–
With pigs the difference is not great–
The effort made her grunt and wheeze
While Ed approached with the killing knife.

Wet-eyed Jerome looked down at his pig
Then told Ed Lee to wait–
He had a word or two to say.
Putting his hand on the old sow’s back,
He knelt in his overalls there in the mud
And bowed his head to pray.

Emma Gray, he said, I thank the Lord for thee
Thou has been a most faithful friend
To me and to the other pigs;
Thou hast not kept the others from the trough
Nor help for thyself the choicest wallowing spots;
Nor has thou been a breaker of fences.

Thy children have been many and fat and
Thou hast protected them from the winter’s cold
And the ravaging foreigners of New Town,
And fed and nourished well thy brood
And taught them to walk in righteousness
And wept to see them leave thy side.

But thy days are fulfilled, and now I deliver
Thee into the hands of Ed Lee the assassin.
Ed looked at the grunting, wheezing pig
And the old man kneeling by it in the mud;
He stabbed the knife into a wooden post–
They say he couldn’t ever kill another pig.

Now anyone who has tried to love a pig
Knows such men are rare.

–Lowell M. Durham, Jr., Ph.D.
University of Washington