by David D. Esselstrom

In 1961, my eldest brother, Keith, was discharged from the Army’s 101st Airborne division. From his last duty station in Okinawa, he returned to La Crescenta, California, with a third-degree black belt in Karate, a Samurai sword with three-foot blade, and the conviction that Gautama Buddha, not Jesus Christ, had had it right. I remember watching him unpack his duffel bag. He pulled out a bright red carton of Pall Mall cigarettes, a bayonet, and a packet of books, among them Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen and Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums

My eldest brother, eight and a half years older than I, had it right, in my eyes. He held my bike when I learned to ride and laughed as I kept yelling for him to “let go, let go, I can do it, let go.” He was laughing because he had let go quite some time before. He took me fishing in the streams of the San Gabriel Mountains, taught me how to work a salmon egg onto a hook. He showed me how to step through and string a bow, how to rest my eyes on the target, let slip the arrow and feel the arc of its flight out from the bow, up through air, and into the cardboard box stuffed with newspapers. 

We had our first discussion about religion when I was twelve. I more or less argued Pascal’s Wager—risking delusion is a better bet than risking damnation. Keith ridiculed the position as being beneath his dignity. I felt embarrassed that it was not beneath my own. Looking at it through Keith’s eyes, Christianity seemed a religion for wimps and cowards, a refuge of the weak and afraid. Mostly because of Keith, I began, at thirteen, working my way through The Way of Zen. I remember reaching what I thought at the time was a state of satori early one morning as I tossed copies of the Los Angeles Examiner to the second-floor apartments of a building in Montrose.

I discovered later that Keith and I were typical members of a restless generation, young people coming of age in the sixties. The fifties began in 1948 with the advent of commercial television and ended with the death of John Kennedy in ’63. The sixties started—in earnest—in 1964 with the Beatles’ first tour of the U.S. An interest in the religion and philosophy of Asia that flowered in the forties and fifties in the work of Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg as a garden of aesthetic inspiration took root in the sixties in the soil of America’s discontented youth, as much a reaction against everything domestic as an embracing of things mysterious, exotic, and other. Things Eastern, or quasi-Eastern, became part of our cultural landscape—from Zen to Transcendental Meditation, from Hare Krishna to the Bagwan, from being Blissed-out with the Guru Mahara Ji to “getting it” with Ehard Seminars Training. 

We can think of America’s flirtation with the philosophies and religions from Asia as an encounter with the “other.” But we can’t really understand the nature of this encounter nor what results from it until we see that all such encounters are problematic.


There are two ways of looking at “the other.” Sam Keen has noted that throughout history we have often demonized the other, seeing what is different as something that is frightening and therefore must be strictly controlled or ruthlessly abolished. In wartime, the enemy is conceived of as evil, his motives base, his actions reprehensible. Our actions, on the other hand, are seen as necessary, as lesser evils needed to prevent greater ones. There is always a qualitative difference between us and them. When “the other” is closer to us we deal with it in a less brutal, but still brutalizing, fashion. If we dismiss it—usually out of fear or ignorance or arrogance, although the three are often the same—we then ghettoize the other, marginalizing a people, taking away the voice of a culture by ignoring it. If we do not fear it, we pretend to embrace it, or rather absorb the other, using it, making differences commodities that can be worn or heard or watched or, in some other way, consumed. 

The second way of looking at “the other” is to give it unwarranted value. This is the “greener grass” phenomenon. What is over there must be better than what is over here. Chekov’s “Three Sisters” want to get to Moscow. Everything will be better in Moscow. Huck Finn takes off for the west where a man can breathe. I always thought Virginia and Sharon who lived across the driveway from me in the fifties had the better toys. Keith, my eldest brother, thought the quieting of the mind and body before doing battle on the tatami mats with an opponent was better discipline than quiet reflection on a passage of the Bible. 

An anecdote from the sixties might help illustrate these two perspectives. A dinner table argument between a teenager and her father began when the young woman said she admired a friend who had taken up the study of Transcendental Meditation. The father was a first confused, then incensed. Her point was that the friend had found something of spiritual value in his practice. The father’s irritation was with anyone finding anything of value from a culture where indoor plumbing was a rarity. 

The problem is that both of these ways of looking at and dealing with the other—to denigrate or to glorify—are counter-productive. Dismissal leads to loss. Not only is marginalization—whether cultural, economic, or social—unjust to those people who are marginalized, but it costs those people doing the marginalizing as well. The father in the preceding anecdote has trouble valuing any culture he cannot measure by his own yardstick of material wellbeing. Because he can’t or won’t do so, he is cut off from interacting with his daughter. He cannot understand her fascination with emotional or spiritual values that have little to do with material things.

But what about the other side? Glorification of the other. Is this dangerous as well? I think it is. And my brother and myself are cases in point. If we value something before we understand it, we run the risk of chipping away at that value as our understanding grows, a paradoxical but not uncommon phenomenon. I’m reminded of a young woman with whom I went to high school. I was honored by her friendship since she was the smartest student in our school, a delightful conversationalist, and a brilliant actress. She went on to a college in Southern California because of her admiration for the professors there in the English and Theater Arts departments. Two years later when I asked her how things were going, she seemed a bit disappointed. She said she’d found out something quite disconcerting about her professors. “What’s that?” I asked. “They’re human,” she said. “Familiarity breeds contempt” does not tell us something about the situation; it tells us something about ourselves. 

Here’s another illustration. When we are children, “the other” is the world of the grown-ups. Bruno Bettelheim maintains that for the child, the adult world is frightening because it is, in fact, unimaginable. The difference between the two realms is qualitative. Imagine how different our lives would be if we really were, as adults, as fearless, as carefree, as certain as we imagined adulthood to be when we were children. One of the more depressing things you can tell a young person is “These are the best years of your life.” 

Worse than the risk of disillusionment, however, is what happens to our relationship to what is in our own backyard. To glorify the foreign often involves the denigration of the domestic. It’s not only a question of comparative values. Selection always involves value judgments. How we choose to spend our time indicates what we value. But the real danger is one of dynamics rather than status. When one chooses to value “the other ” what often happens is that one’s understanding of one’s own cultural heritage freezes, stops, ceases to grow—may indeed begin to whither. 

For example, my growing understanding of the religious tradition in which I was raised stopped at about my junior year of high school. I thought I understood it, and what I thought I understood, I didn’t like. An understanding that is not growing, that is not dynamic, withers. Luckily for me, my understanding, my relationship with my own tradition, began to show signs of life in the late seventies because of my teaching. I was offering a few courses through Marylhurst college in Lake Oswego, Oregon—I believe the name when I was there was Marylhurst Center for Life-long Learning. Sister Marilyn Guldan, head of the Humanities Division, developed a correspondence/brief residency course on “The Convergence of East-West Thought.” She threw a little work to this hungry adjunct instructor by letting me team-teach the course with her. Initially, I was shocked. I believed that there was no convergence between what I thought I knew of Eastern thought and what I thought I knew of Western thought. What I discovered is that I didn’t know either, and that I had used my exposure to the one as an excuse to stop thinking about both. 

I learned that not only is there a rich tradition of Christian mysticism, but that Christian scholars had long been in dialogue with their counterparts in Japan and India. Later, when I was teaching at the University of Portland, Sister Joan Salfield and I formed the core of a weekly meditation group. My brother never had this opportunity to re-examine what he thought he had learned about others and about himself. The danger is that in glorifying the foreign—the exotic, the different—we marginalize ourselves and our own traditions. 

Another example is an experience that occurred to a friend of mine who grew up outside of any specific religious tradition. In a college course which required students to observe and report on religious services outside their own, he chose to attend a Christian service at a Protestant evangelical church. Noting that his peers were reporting on their experiences in positive and respectful terms, he did the same. His report was deemed unacceptable. When he rewrote the report and placed his observations in more negative terms, his efforts were praised, his insight encouraged. The graduate students reacting to my friend’s efforts remind me of my brother and his inability to see his own tradition as valuable, as worthy of study, as something that he perhaps does not yet fully understand. 

We marginalize that which we do not understand, and often that which we think we do. Some certainties make arguments possible; others foreclose all discussion. We can reach agreement if we both affirm that agreement is possible. And, as Kenneth Burke tells us, that is only possible if both of us are willing to change, if both of us are willing to admit that our own certainties are something less than absolute. Believing, because of fear or anger or ignorance, that you know enough about other people to warrant their separation—as with the Americans of Japanese descent interned during WW II—is needlessly damaging to our society. Believing that you know all you need to about yourself and your world is an unnecessary amputation of the self. 

Therefore, if we don’t want to push others away nor do we want to deny ourselves and our heritage, how can we be accepting of other traditions without adhering to them, how can we be respectful of other points of view while remaining steadfast and true to our own? This is one of those questions that can be answered by turning to the examples given us in literature. The answer is that the question cannot be viewed as a matter of stance—where do I stand? what do I believe? what do I know?—but as a matter of dynamics—what can I learn? where can the discussion lead? what are the opportunities for fuller appreciation of one tradition by way of the others? 

We marginalize that which we do not understand, and often that which we think we do.

Some writers have shown us that interest and respect need not be glorification. We can learn how this is done from the literature that explores the relationship between the other and ourselves without marginalizing either the other—or ourselves. From Forster’s Passage to India to Hesse’s Siddhartha to Huxley’s Island to Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Western writers have been intrigued by the East, not so much as a substitute for their own traditions but as way of getting some distance from which to view and critique those traditions. 

But the critique itself is not Eastern but Western in nature and intent. This is the case because our writers—and others—in the current century have been looking for answers in the East to questions that can only be posed in the West. These are questions of identity and purpose, questions that—as I understand the major currents of thought in Hinduism and Buddhism—are unasked because they are unaskable from inside these traditions. Dr. D.T. Suzuki was criticized by those in his own tradition when, partly as a result of Alan Watts’ writing about Zen, he decided to speak to a Western audience. “The way that can speak its name is not the real way,” says the Tao te Ching.

Literature, as we know it in the West, is a production of human consciousness attempting through language to form, define, and explain the mystery of individual personhood. Literature then is both a culmination and a celebration of individual identity. Yet what fascinates Western writers about the East is the absence of the very dependence on identity that makes such questions possible. The problem for all of us is that identity in its own fulfillment doesn’t supply satisfaction. I know who I am and I know I’m not happy. The paradox is that we, in the West at least, want to know who we are and have happiness at the same time. In fact, the way we think of happiness, as a possession, underscores this paradox. Our own traditions have called the problem with this to our attention several times. “The first shall be last.” “Who loses her life shall gain it.”

The answer? It’s a matter of maintaining a healthy relationship. In our own tradition we are exhorted to love the other as we love ourselves, not less than, not more than, and not in place of. It is in our dynamic relationship with others that we form and define ourselves. To shorten that relationship on either end is deadening; to keep it open is frightening because it leads to a richer, deeper life. 

Photo credit: Eddy Van 300, via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0.

About the Author

David Esselstrom, Ph.D., is a teacher and writer who encourages students to express themselves clearly and creatively. He has published fiction and journalism, and has written extensively for the stage and screen. Esselstrom combines his scholarly interests and creative projects with his passion for teaching in such courses as creative writing, composition, literature, and film and media.  Via Azusa Pacific University.

by Joseph Coulson, Ph.D.

A great many ills have beset the world and our country, our less-than-whole United States of America, and we find not least among our problems an alarming lack of empathy, as if somehow our abilities to reason and empathize were the casualty of an executive order. The current decline of empathy, a downward slope that began years ago, coincides with the decline of community arts programs, cultural organizations, and school curricula and college degrees focused on the humanities. But why has our culture kicked the humanities to the curb? Why do we often speak of empathy as if it were an impractical preoccupation? I can offer no short, easy answers to these questions, but certainly the humanities as a profession began to lose its heart and soul when we stopped talking about stories that matter.

Rather than maintaining the primacy of the story as the way to engagement and learning, we in the profession began questioning our methods and purpose, losing our direction while community and cultural organizations lost funding, college professors became obsessed with literary theory, state lawmakers and school officials aimed at teaching to the tests, and federal agencies legislated in favor of nonfiction as the primary emphasis of English instruction in elementary and secondary schools. The mantra became reading for content, for finding the argument of a text and summarizing it, as opposed to the close reading of imaginative literature which demands much weightier matters of analysis and interpretation. As a culture, we opened the door and greeted expository writing and basic journalism with open arms, and we left poetry, drama, and fiction—we left stories—at the curb.

Only in stories are we asked to look through the eyes of someone that may be very different from ourselves. Only in stories do we come to understand the motives of other people, their limitations and their humanity. Only in stories are we asked to figure out why something happened or why a character behaves in a particular way—feels loved or unloved, victorious or cheated, included or left out, privileged or discriminated against. My high school English teacher declared long ago, “To learn the facts and statistics of the Dust Bowl, read an article or an encyclopedia entry. But if you want to know how it felt, if you want to learn something about its human cost and its moral implications, then read The Grapes of Wrath.” Only in stories are we asked—even forced—to empathize with people and situations that we cannot otherwise know in the limited geography of our lives. Stories in every form, stories in every family, organization, and school, provide the training ground for empathy. The less we traffic in important stories, the more we lose our sense of community and a realistic understanding of our place in the world.

In the light of a new Presidential administration, we must advocate for a renewed allegiance to the humanities. We must advocate for funding, of course, letting our elected officials know that support for the humanities also supports the duties of citizenship and the functioning of representative government. But we must also demonstrate that both the reading and the discussion of imaginative literature, of diverse stories in all forms, provide an age-old means for cultivating and developing empathy. We in the humanities must argue for the primacy of the literary story and then demonstrate its power as an agent of change. Our advocacy should advance the belief that literature is vital to our nation’s survival and that to embrace a celebrated story with respect for its challenges and complexities is also to embrace empathy.

Photo credit: Melissa Hogan, via Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0.

About the Author

Dr. Joseph Coulson is the President and Chief Academic Officer of Harrison Middleton University. He is the past president of the  Great Books Foundation.  Beyond teaching, his poetry, drama, and fiction have been widely published, including two novels, Of Song and Water and The Vanishing Moon, that translated into German and French. Joe studied at Wayne State University and the University of Oxford, and he holds a Ph.D. in American Literature from SUNY Buffalo.

by Alissa Simon

Rebecca Mead’s book My Life in Middlemarch weaves a well-researched narrative that involves land, people, women, love, and story-telling, among other things. Mead incorporates her own journey to underscore the way that Middlemarch changes with every decade of life. My Life in Middlemarch explains how one can continually learn lessons from a single book. In fact, it has instructed (and continues to instruct) Mead’s understanding of character, moral, intellect and empathy. She feels that Eliot’s novel cannot be minimized into quotations. Actually, quite the reverse, the book rejects summary. With each decade, the novel speaks to a different aspect of Mead’s own life. Through a variety of characters, Middlemarch underscores the complicated nature of life, reminding us that sometimes the choices we receive are out of our control. Eliot’s book, in other words, looks closely at the many large and small complications in the web of life. Mead’s book echoes this journey by incorporating personal narrative, research of Eliot’s own life, and a sense of Middlemarch itself. 

Via the Washingtonian, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Near the beginning, Mead introduces questions of motherhood which haunted Eliot who did not have any children of her own. Rather, Eliot grew to love and care for George Lewes’ children. When the youngest child died at the age of twenty-four, Eliot too feels this loss deeply. Mead writes, “A book does not tell us exactly how to live our own lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book. Now when I read the novel in light of Eliot’s life, and in the light of my own, I see her experience of unexpected family woven deep into the fabric of the novel – not as part of the book’s obvious pattern, but as part of its tensile strength. Middlemarch seems charged with the question of being a stepmother: of how one might do well by one’s stepchildren, or unwittingly fail them, and of all that might be gained from opening one’s heart wider.” (110). Mead connects with Eliot’s experience because of their shared experience as a stepmother. 

More than understanding our own lives, however, Mead describes Eliot’s book as a passage through the big questions of life. In attempting to understand art and the role of the artist, Mead explores an Eliot quote: “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally. The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.” (56). Furthermore, she claims that these characters grant us a sort of self-awareness. They offer a lens through which to measure and weigh our own lives. Mead writes, “Looking back from the vantage-point of forty-five, though, twenty doesn’t look quite so far away. We are still recognizably ourselves, with many of the same confusions, even if experience has abated them, and granted us some self-awareness. We can hope, at best, that growing older has given us some degree of emotional maturity, and a greater understanding of the perspectives and the projections of others.” (162-3). Novels provide a space to ask what we might do in another’s situation and Middlemarch presents a great variety of characters of ambiguous morals. These characters address issues of poverty, wealth, religiosity and moral depravity, love and power, among many others. Since Mead herself has grown up with this novel, she highlights many of the same themes in My Life in Middlemarch

Middlemarch gives me a deep love of virtue, but only as it relates to flawed individuals. Eliot expresses the refreshing notion that flaws do not contradict virtue. In fact, virtue is built upon our response to flaws, and Rebecca Mead not only embraces this theme, but reinforces it by scaffolding her own journey with the wonderfully researched narrative My Life in Middlemarch.

About the Author

Alissa Simon is a Tutor at Harrison Middleton University. Though she is interested in (and studies) all sorts of literature, she typically focuses on poetry and translation. When not reading and writing, she spends her time in the outdoors, rain or shine.

by Erin McCoy

After considering the subject “Feminist Perspectives on the Humanities and Higher Education,” the first question that flitted across my mind was: “What do women and the humanities have in common?”

Scrawled across my Snoopy notepad, my answer: “They have to fight to be heard.”


Of course, feminist perspectives don’t always mean “women,” and I’d add that “Higher Education” also often has to sing for its state and donor-funded supper. My vocal range is limited as a woman/feminist; my black and brown colleagues in Higher Education have it harder than me, so my voice must include and make space for theirs. And the Humanities – my official doctoral degree – usually has to raise its voice the loudest in the chorus, creating looping arias about “the importance of the humanities” over the percussive roll of “STEM, STEM, STEM, STEM” across the higher education landscape. Like the road for equality between the sexes, the path of the Humanities in the 21st century has been slow-going. As a woman working in the Humanities, I attribute part of the problem to the exhausting weariness that comes with repeatedly insisting your existence has value.

A few months ago, the University where I teach hired a consultant to assist in “restructuring” academics. As a member of the consultant’s working group – and as someone who teaches English classes – I felt dismayed when drafts of “academic organization” immediately combined my Department (English, Theater, and Interdisciplinary Studies) and the Humanities Department (Languages, History, Philosophy) with others as a first measure to cut costs. I called several colleagues – mostly women – to just listen to their thoughts; they were sharply articulate about the need for resources. One likened combining departments in the Humanities as “over-suffocating the garden”; she pointed out that money, faculty hire lines, and the overall Department budgets get a lot tighter if there’s too many plants in the pot. If anything, the Humanities need more space to breathe, as well as more water, more sunlight – more support.

And while I’d like that support to mean “people in the Humanities need to be paid more,” what I really mean is that the Humanities should be tapped for the wellspring of creative innovation they are. I recently virtually attended the annual Humanities Education and Research Association (HERA) Conference. I have been part of HERA – as a member, a newsletter editor, a non-voting board member, a conference participant – since 2011. So, as it is with Covid-19, I saw familiar HERA faces over Zoom, heard the hallmark throat-clear of a long-time HERA member over an un-muted mic, and watched seasoned and green humanities scholars probe ideas. I presented a paper on a course I’m teaching, Sports and the Humanities. I asked my audience: how do I better root the course in the Classical Humanities? I was rewarded with references to Ancient Greek urn art (as sports propaganda), the real name of Plato, and the “culture of celebrity” alluded to in antiquity texts. But it didn’t stop there. My privilege was duly checked, as were questions about including transgender and disabled athletes in the course materials.

That’s part of the problem with the Humanities – it’s so integrative, it is hard to argue that it deserves a room of its own.

To me, these exhilarating discussions essentially turn over and over William Faulkner’s assertion that “the past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” But how does literature, philosophy, Game of Thrones, Freud, Bridgerton fan-fiction, Tik Tok, etc. tell us about humanity, and it’s “present past”? I’d seen a similar exchange, but younger and more diverse, at a conference my University hosted in February – the First Virtual Interdisciplinary Studies Conference.

I’m really proud of that conference, because it was I who supplied the seed of it, and my colleague – a wife and mom and actor – took my arm and we ran with the idea. We were awarded a grant from the South Carolina Humanities Council, which funded our Zoom purchase and speaker fees. We were offered funds from Academic Affairs, but I wanted to prove that we were worth funding outside of the University. It was important that a project rooted in interdisciplinary humanities get money and thus be recognized in newsletters and Faculty Senate notes. People need to be reminded that the Humanities deserves investment. We had lots of help, support, and engagement from a third woman – another dear, female, colleague of mine, whose help with organizing the program was enough. But she went on to create presentations that brought current students and librarians together, and they were talking about race and health disparities with such grace and intelligence; it’s truly beautiful to see, our shared humanity mirrored back at each other.

The collaborative spirit – from our fellow women in the Grants and Accounts offices to our fellow faculty and to our delightful keynotes – underscored the real value of the Humanities. There were plenty of men who helped and supported the cause as well, I should add. We had a solid team helping each other out, which begets a more egalitarian product from the start; as Angela Davis noted in Freedom is a Constant Struggle (2016): “It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.” That’s part of the problem with the Humanities – it’s so integrative, it is hard to argue that it deserves a room of its own.


The 2021 NFL Super Bowl featured a spoken-word performance by poetry super-star Amanda Gorman. I cannot recall a time where a poem preceded the Super Bowl; Twitter already surged with academics and literature folks giddy over Gorman’s reading of her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration. The primetime Super Bowl spot put us over the edge. Popular music is full of poetry, sacred geometry found in nature is full of poetry – studying poetry thus helps us understand the world around us. It allows us space to think about different ways to interpret that world and how we might question it, as well as to recognize what came before it.

But it does not exist only to bolster shiny “new” things, like Digital Humanities (by default, everyone working in the Humanities is doing some digital things, because we live in a digital world). I am fascinated by one of my previously mentioned colleague’s work with Medical Humanities, and I think I can contribute to it in some way, even if it’s just supporting her ideas and championing her courses. But the Humanities don’t wholly exist in these new iterations; they have long existed on their own, but in concert with each other.

Credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

What’s hopefully clear, in this prose, is some celebration of the Humanities, often done in defiance of the perception that it is “lesser-than” other disciplines. The root of feminism is believing in equality, and the Humanities is a metaphor for the treatment of women inasmuch that the value of Humanities will never be the same as the value of Medicine, for example. My aforementioned partner in conferencing (and opera-trained vocalist), Ms. Libby Ricardo, read a draft of this essay and immediately followed the metaphor: “WE ARE THE ALTOS!  We create the support and foundation while others get to be flashy and thus recognized.  Everyone knows a famous Tenor or Soprano.  But an Alto?  And yet, they create the lushest sound.”  

That’s practical – we don’t hear the alto when we’re paying attention to the soaring soprano. We don’t need the arts and humanities to live (though our quarantine addiction to Netflix tells us otherwise). A friend of mine writes that he’s “a doctor, but not the kind that helps people” in his social media bio – it’s funny, but the self-depreciation also comes with defeat. When a very grumpy man derided the First Lady Jill Biden for using her professional title, Dr. Biden, because it “feels fraudulent,” academia roared back. The grumpy man’s article was also derisive, dismissive (he called Dr. Biden “kiddo”) and sexist. It goes without saying (but bares repeating) that no one would’ve written this crap about a man.

Another glass ceiling breaks, and the chorus sings on – in this anecdotal essay, the song was about women in the Humanities, and my limited, privileged view of feminism in the Humanities. I am writing this on International Women’s Day, which I’m happy to celebrate but feel put out that women only get a day; a week would be nice. But that’s how I approach some of the issues I’ve seen in higher education, in regard to Humanities – sometimes the gesture is made, but it feels half-baked. Yay, a day. Yay, an obligatory one-line “congratulations” email. But the Humanities echoes a strong lesson: If you’re always looking outside yourself (your state, your school, etc.) for support (funding, enthusiasm), you’ll never be complete, or feel “good enough.” But I think our voices are good enough. I think the Humanities has a rightful place in the Higher Education pantheon – and I plan to keep singing. Loud.

About the Author

Erin R. McCoy is an Associate Professor of English and Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. Her forthcoming book about the cultural historiography of the Viet Nam War is under contract with McFarland Press.

 

by Volker Frank

I. By Way of Introduction: A Sociological Perspective of the Problem

A little more than a century ago, Emile Durkheim wrote his last book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. In it, he explained why religion and faith are such universal human phenomena, regardless of their particular expressions, Gods, or sacred texts. To him, religion’s fundamental value was not the saving of the believer for an afterlife, but what religion – in its organized and collective form – did to those who believed and practiced it: they were members of a community of values. While Durkheim succeeded in making the point, he unfortunately failed in his other goal – the recovery of a consciously and collectively shared human morality, for which the Elementary Forms was a sort of preliminary study, a foundational perspective. Durkheim realized that modern life with all its scientific revolutions and progress (technological, medical, etc.) raised a serious challenge to community life of all sorts (the nation, the Church, the citizenry, the rural towns, the educational institutions). In fact, he argued, the birth and evolution of modern life produced secularizations and separations of all kinds. Even religion itself was not immune to this development. This was a problem, he argued, because while modern life produced a more complex division of labor that gave specialization, it also weakened our social and moral ties. He was quite skeptical about modern life’s ability to reproduce – in secular form – what religion had (presumably) accomplished before the arrival of modern life. In this vision that modern life will be diverse and yet profoundly divided, confused even, about values and what values we should nurture and protect and teach, he was not alone. Other famous Sociologists, Politicians, and Philosophers also feared that modern life will be increasingly about what we have and less about who we are and who we want to be and how we see ourselves as a part of something bigger. 

II. Diversity and Inclusion, Diversity or Inclusion?

 What has happened to Durkheim’s concerns? Has the University managed to address a central problem of modern times? And has the University not only addressed it, but arrived at a “good enough” conclusion or recommendation among its teachers and with its students? I am not so sure. In other words, while a lot of Universities and Colleges, and especially those who teach the Humanities, have recently – and rightfully so – engaged more intentionally with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, frequently we are still not addressing a fundamental question: what are our values and beliefs, why do we have the values and beliefs we have, and what’s so unique about the Humanities in their attempts to clarify values for us? Is there a trade-off between diversity and inclusion? What lies underneath our talk of diversity and inclusion?

Let us assume for a second that the problem lies not so much with our attention given to diversity, but with inclusion. Many argue that finally, the Humanities are paying more attention to diversity of all kinds: here at “home” in the West (e.g. race, ethnicity, multiculturalism, gender, trans-gender, etc.) but also there “abroad” in the non-West (e.g. indigeneity, coloniality, cosmopolitanism). In the classroom, and among colleagues, talk about non-Western cultures, religions, and belief systems is not always easy. There are many reasons for this but two should be mentioned here. First, a lack of familiarity with “abroad” (produced, in part, by education biased toward the West, limited exposure to other cultures, reinforced by language limitations, and a lot more). To be blunt, or overly simplistic, not everybody who teaches about Africa, Latin America, or Asia, did what Levy-Strauss, or Geertz or Mead could do: spend years “abroad”. 

Second, and perhaps more importantly, a profound philosophical bias towards one-sided reason. Here we could mention a long line of intellectual thinkers who continue to have great influence over our Humanities: Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, Smith, Darwin, Habermas, Foucault etc…Is it because they are all white males or is it because they share something that goes beyond race/ethnicity and gender? Maybe what they and others share is “subjectivism”, i.e. their ontological and/or metaphysical belief, philosophy, and their neglect of what in Anthropology is called a “wholistic worldview.” Looking beyond what is offered not only by Kant and company but also by most Sociologists and so many Social Theorists in terms of an explanation of who we are as human beings, is it possible that we are looking at a false dichotomy, and therefore not really looking at the bigger picture?

In other words, instead of looking at humans either as “agency” or “part of structure”, homo faber or homo ludens, instead of  disagreeing over whether we are, as Kant, Descartes, Smith, or Darwin had it, individuals in a competitive world, unable to fully understand and connect with the outside world, or instead of wondering if there is still a “grand narrative” since the Enlightenment (the modernization, democratization, secularization of the world), or whether the grand narrative is now a text to be de-contextualized, broken down into separate, distinct and different parts, instead of approaching the world from the perspective of Western vs non-Western, religious vs secular, developed or developing, rural or urban, rich or poor, healthy or sick, diverse and global, inclusive for some and exclusive for others, we ask again, who, what, and where are we as simple humans? But this time, we do so from a less “nominalistically” influenced world view. By nominalist I mean a world-view that assumes a dichotomous world: mind – world, subject – object, individualism – objective world, human nature is social vs. non-human nature is not social. Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, Weber, and Habermas, and others, present this world-view, their philosophical stand, their theoretical position, for some even their political position, and thus their theories represent a value to the degree to which they describe what is, what is natural, what is not, what we are, what we are not, what is reason, what is rational, what is not rational, what belongs to God and what belongs to humans, what is fact and what is (to them)  “mere ritual” and finally, what deserves to be learned and what not. These are then, at one and the same time ontological affirmations, metaphysical accounts, epistemological recommendations.

Looking beyond what is offered not only by Kant and company but also by most Sociologists and so many Social Theorists in terms of an explanation of who we are as human beings, is it possible that we are looking at a false dichotomy, and therefore not really looking at the bigger picture?

It is not that some would not have warned us. Here, one could mention a few voices: Weber argued quite eloquently that “the fate of an epoch which has eaten of the tree of knowledge is that it must know that we cannot learn the meaning of the world from the results of its analysis, be it ever so perfect; it must rather be in a position to create this meaning itself. It must recognize that general views of life and the universe can never be the products of increasing empirical knowledge” (Giddens 1971:136). E. F. Schumacher echoes Weber’s warning in that he asks “we know how to do many things but do we know what to do? He goes on to argue that the current crisis (moral, political, economic, and environmental) of western civilization is due in large part to a crisis of education. There has been, so to speak, a “metaphysical collapse” of our deepest convictions and he concludes “education which fails to clarify our central convictions is mere training or indulgence and education, far from ranking as man’s greatest resource, will then be an agent of destruction, in accordance with the principle “corruptio optimi pessima” (Campbell et al. 2002: 555).  

And so, steeped in this tradition, today our Humanities face some serious challenges. From a nominalist perspective, how do you make sense of a statement like this: The Dagara people (Southern Burkina Faso, North West Ghana), explains M. P Somé, “have no word for the supernatural.” Moreover, “the world of the Dagara does not distinguish between reality and imagination” (Somé 1995:7). Likewise, Achebe (1994) argues that, as a consequence of a Western-imposed world-view, economics and politics, philosophy and science, the “problematique” of post-colonial Africa is how to get its people “back to the authentic” or “out of” this modern or post-modern Africa. In a similar vein, Maldonado-Torres, following Heidegger, asks how can we remind or convince non-Western people that for many former colonial subjects, it is not Descartes’ I think, therefore I am, it is I am, therefore I think. How do you unpack this?! 

The good news is that there are some really interesting proposals how to get us out of this bias. And so, re-reading Achebe or Somé and others (e.g. Halton), I wonder, do they propose what in my view constitutes a non-nominalist theory, a philosophy that might acknowledge the other, the stranger, or that might even “otherize” and yet still explore common elements in our humanity as the real foundation? Thinkers like Goethe, Mumford and Gandhi, Morrison, among others, present us with the possibility that rationality (including the one so strongly represented in the Social and Natural Sciences, in the Humanities and in Philosophy), is only a part of what makes us human, and there is more to the human condition, as religion, as extra-rational, as nature shows us and perhaps unlike at any time before now, is even trying to tell us.  

III. A Modest Proposal

The way we understand each other, the way we communicate with each other, the way we are and who we might become is far from an individualistic project alone. Our common project is rational but it is also so much more, it is reasonable, emotional, symbolic, and yes, it is calculating and sometimes dishonest and, lately, very conflictual. Halton argues that ”the reasonable is far more than the rational and runs deeper than cultural and biological reductionists can admit. It includes empathic intelligence, which can feel what rational mind cannot know, as well as projective intelligence, which can body forth ideas, images, feelings, and forms utterly irrationally, though reasonably” (Halton 1995:74). Many theories and philosophies see the rational individual as the center of attention – and hence as the place from which to explain the social, yet in doing so they risk missing more than what they reveal. Emphasizing diversity at the cost of inclusion is also bound to make the same mistakes, to fall into the same bias. Diversity and Inclusion are distinct ways of looking at the world, but maybe Inclusion is more than the sum total of Diversity. Inclusion is more than adding stories about “diversity at home and diversity abroad” – as important and timely as these may be. Inclusion is about shared humanity, regardless of place and time. 

 

Works Cited

Achebe, Ch. Things Fall Apart. New York Anchor Books, 1994.

Giddens, Anthony. Capitalism and Modern Social Theory, An analysis of the writings of Marx,

Durkheim and Weber. London, Cambridge University Press 1971. 

Halton, Eugene. Bereft of Reason. On the Decline of Social Thought and Prospects for Its Renewal.

Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Maldonado-Torres N. “On the Coloniality of Being” In Cultural Studies, 21:2, 240-270.

Routledge, 2007.

Schumacher E.F. “The Greatest Resource – Education.” In Asheville Reader The Individual in the

Contemporary World. Edited by G Campbell, M Gillum, D Sulock, M West. Copley Custom Publishing Group, 2002, 540-555.

Somé, M. T. Of Water and the Spirit. Ritual, Magic, and the Life of an African Shaman. New York,

Penguin, 1995. 

Tantillo, A. O. Goethe’s Modernisms, New York, Continuum 2010.

Wiredu, K. and Gyekye K. Person and Community. Ghanaian Philosophical Studies I. Washington,

Council for Research in Values and Philosophy. 1992.

 

 

by Nayla K. Muntasser John R. Clarke

As the world struggles with the horrifying toll that the COVID 19 pandemic is taking on lives and livelihoods, from time to time moments of clarity emerge, providing a glimmer of hope that positive outcomes are possible. In a very small way, a decision made over a decade ago that was met with some skepticism within the humanities, has turned out to have been prescient and doubly valuable. Such was the decision by the members of the Oplontis Project, with the support and collaboration of the ACLS Humanities E-Book team, to begin the process of producing a born-digital multi-volume series on the research being undertaken at the ancient Roman sites of Oplontis in Torre Annunziata, Italy. It was uncommon at the time to publish a book on archaeology and art history straight into a digital format; even rarer was the aim to also make the results of the research freely available. Yet today, especially while libraries remain inaccessible, our work is a boon to scholars, with two comprehensive open-access volumes offered online and a third in production.

The Oplontis Project was created within the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas at Austin in order to study and fully publish the two ancient Roman structures at Oplontis that had been buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 C.E. Although both are called villas, only one, Villa A (of Poppea), is strictly a luxury residence. Villa B (of Lucius Crassius Tertius), is better called Oplontis B, for it is a multi-use complex that incorporates a wine distribution center, storage facilities for agricultural products, some modest residential quarters and possibly a harbor. Villa A and Oplontis B were excavated and reconstructed by the Italian archaeological authorities beginning in the mid-1960’s through 1991, but neither structure had been fully published. The sites were made UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1997.

Once the Oplontis Project received the mandate in 2006 to study both structures further, each year a team of researchers and archaeologists spent 4-8 weeks documenting the villas’ present state, researching archival material and opening exploratory trenches. Excavation campaigns were undertaken in Villa A from 2006 to 2010 and at Oplontis B from 2012 to the present. In 2020, for the first time in fourteen years there was no Oplontis Project excavation and study season, an unexpected hiatus that so many projects around the world have had to accept. So far, two volumes on the research at Villa A are available in the Open Access Humanities E-Book Collection hosted by the University of Michigan on the Fulcrum Platform. 

Readers of the volumes on Villa A at Oplontis will find that the first one provides chapters that place the villa in its historical, geographical and cultural contexts, as well presenting a history of excavations that reveals the complexity of the villa’s excavation and reconstruction as well as the inevitability of our incomplete knowledge of it. Volume 2 provides catalogues of all the paintings, sculptures, pavements and stuccoes in the villa as well as new focused studies of the graffiti, and some previously unstudied motifs on the walls including carpet borders and tiny processional scenes. Scientific analyses include chemical analysis of the pigments in the frescoes, the provenance and composition of the expensive stones used throughout the Villa. There are also digital reconstructions of significant decorative schemes. Volume 3 will present the results of the Oplontis Project excavations, including a study of the ceramic finds, the bones unearthed and miscellaneous small finds. A close study of the masonry informs the two chapters on the architectural evolution and room functions over the life of the villa from about 50 B.C.E to its destruction in 79 C.E. An account of the in the hydraulics of the villa shows the changes over time from the exuberant use of water in the fountains and majestic pool to the damaging effect of the 62 C.E. earthquake. This third volume will also include studies of previously unpublished materials from excavations prior to 2006 and documentation of both the first excavations in the nineteenth century and the most modern attempts at conserving the villa in digital form through the creation of a navigable 3d model.

During the studies of Villa A, the Oplontis Project team noticed a small section of mosaic on the other side of the Sarno canal constructed in the sixteenth century to provide hydraulic power to the flour mills in the area. This canal cut through the seaward façade of the villa complex. This discovery led to a campaign of excavation by archaeologists from the Italian Ministry of Culture between 2014 and 2016 that revealed a series colonnaded terraces descending to the shore. An account of those excavations and a reconstruction of that façade will be included in this volume.

While Villa A with its sprawling layout, cliff-top perch and seaward vista, is typical of the luxury maritime villas that developed along the Bay of Naples, Oplontis B does not fit neatly into any category of Roman building that is known so far. It is, instead, a hybrid of several existing building types. A large courtyard with a two-story tufa colonnade is surrounded by storage rooms on four sides. To the east, on the ground floor is a wide opening that provided access from a north-south road that connected the hinterland to the coast. The southern side of this main core consists of a row of barrel-vaulted storage rooms with spacious apartments above. Abutting the north wall of the building lies a group of row houses built into former shop spaces facing onto a narrow street. They have cooking platforms and latrines on the ground floor and decorative frescoes on the upper story walls. Across the street another row of similar spaces remains only partially excavated, so what lies behind them is not known. To the west is another partially excavated two-story building seemingly not attached to the colonnaded core, but since the rest of it lies under the local school, it is not possible to explore this building further. A detailed account of the row houses, their decoration, and their contents will be available in the forthcoming copy of the Journal of Roman Archaeology.

The 2020 season was to be the last excavation campaign and 2021 was to be a study season. So far, everything has been postponed for a year, so the publication of Oplontis B will also be delayed. However, the study of the over three thousand amphorae found at the site has been completed and should see publication sooner. In the meantime, excavation reports and articles pertaining to Oplontis B can be found on the peer-reviewed online journal FOLD&R (Fasti On Line Documents & Research) at http://www.fastionline.org/excavation/micro_view.php?item_key=fst_cd&fst_cd=AIAC_334.

 

When a city faces a budget crisis, libraries and museums are the first services to be slashed, regardless of their value to the community. The COVID-19 pandemic has already begun to undermine the budgets of colleges and universities across the country and worldwide. Department chairs and university librarians will likewise no doubt be pressured to cut library subscriptions, programs and even faculty–and liberal arts is often the first area where cutbacks are made.

Oh, the Humanities! was recently asked by a professor for suggestions on resources that could be used to defend the humanities in the face of what will likely be unprecedented pressure to slash budgets in the next academic year and perhaps for several years to come. In response, we’ve started a Google document with citations for reports, articles and blog posts that you can use to make the case in defending the humanities. Rather than saying, “I think I read something recently about the economic benefits of a liberal arts education,” you will be able to cite the precise report by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Now we want to throw the list open to the community for their recommendations. Add your suggested resources here; anyone can edit the document.