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The Barker Center, Harvard's humanities complex (see Habitat for the Humanities, September-October, page 72), made its public debut September 12. That evening, President Neil L. Rudenstine, himself a Harvard humanist with the Ph.D. to prove it (in Renaissance literature, 1964), spoke about the essence of "humane letters." He cited the dialogue of Socrates and Crito on the uses of rhetoric as a lesson on the nature of humanistic debate--a process of serious inquiry into subjects about which "there is no obvious point where the discussion can be stopped," nor certainty about the "turns it will take." He noted that from history to literary studies, "common assumptions and first premises have been re-examined" recently, and then offered several thoughts about the present condition and future of the humanities. Excerpts follow.
If we have any doubts on this score, we have only to remember the great chasms that opened--and the powerful shaking of the foundations that occurred--in nearly all fields of learning, including the humanities, throughout much of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.
Any number of examples will come quickly to all our minds: the revolutionary effects produced by Darwin and the concept of evolution; the great transformations and schisms in religion that preceded (as well as succeeded) Darwin's work; the introduction and full establishment in universities of "modern" humanistic studies, from the 1880s through the turn of the century. These studies included English literature, art history, and the so-called "modern" languages and literatures, as well as the development and legitimatization of the social sciences as academic disciplines. And this entire sea-change led, of course, to the idea, born at Harvard, of a curriculum based largely on an "elective system," allowing students to choose from a rapidly growing number of courses taught by an increasing number of faculty, from a variety of points of view, incorporating a wider and wider range of texts and other materials.
The elective system shattered the previously existing order of prescribed courses and canonical classical texts to make room for a vaster and more complicated multiverse of knowledge. And the resulting cascade of new subjects and specialties produced a feeling on many sides that the world was no longer quite so coherent and comprehensible a place. Toward the end of his masterpiece, The Education of Henry Adams, Adams found that he could look to the future with little more than deep uncertainty and perplexity:
The child born in 1900 would then be born into a new world which would not be a unity but a multiple. Adams tried to imagine it, and an education that would fit it. He found himself in a land where no one had ever penetrated before...
If Adams, writing around 1900, could not imagine an education that could "fit" his increasingly complicated world, we should not be surprised if--after an additional century of unprecedented growth in complexity--we too are experiencing some real turbulence, and are not always entirely certain about how to prepare or "fit" the child born, not in 1900, but in the year 2000.
My second point about the humanities is a simple one: many of the discussions and debates of the past few decades--even at their most disputatious--have significantly broadened and deepened our ideas about human nature and experience in extraordinary ways. We simply know much more about the human past and present; about the values, the ways of life, and the art of people in a far greater number of societies; about individuals and groups whose very existence and contributions were often overlooked and certainly underestimated.
Such a great shift in our collective sensibility and our potential for greater understanding represents an absolutely major achievement and simply could not have been realized without real struggle, debate, and disagreement. "One of the greatest pains to human nature," Walter Bagehot once remarked, "is the pain of a new idea." If we have experienced a reasonable amount of pain recently, we have also enjoyed the harvest of many new insights and important new ideas.
Next, while I am certain that our current debates will continue, I also have the impression that the tenor and substance of many conversations in the humanities and related social sciences are beginning to change. The best work of the past 20 to 30 years is already well established. We have now reached a point where we can make much better judgments about the value of what has been achieved to date. We can also assess which ideas or methods may have been unnecessarily displaced in these last few decades, and should therefore be restored. We can begin to consider which courses, curricula, and research might prove to be most fruitful in the next few decades.
To have a place where precisely these conversations can be pursued at just this moment is nothing less than a stroke of the greatest possible good fortune. In this sense, the creation and opening of the Barker Center could not be more timely or propitious. It represents a significant and imaginative development for Harvard itself, but it is also, so far as I know, unique among major universities in its scope and inclusiveness. In short, the moment is ripe; the participants are engaged; and the new Center provides us with an unparalleled opportunity to venture forth confidently and creatively.
In closing, I want to read and say a few words about a modest poetic text. It is one of Keats's less-known sonnets, written after he had spent an evening at the home of the poet Leigh Hunt. The conversation had touched on Lycidas, Milton's elegy on the death of a young friend, as well as on Petrarch's sonnets to Laura: sonnets born of pain as well as love--and where Laura is inevitably associated in Keats's mind with his own poetic aspirations and with the laurel itself (the fresh green wreath awarded to "laureates"). As the poem begins, Keats has just ventured out into the cold and darkness of a November night:
Keen, fitful gusts are whisp'ring here and there
Among the bushes half leafless, and dry;
The stars look very cold about the sky,
And I have many miles on foot to fare.
Yet feel I little of the cool bleak air,
Or of the dead leaves rustling drearily,
Or of those silver lamps that burn on high,
Or of the distance from home's pleasant lair:
For I am brimfull of the friendliness
That in a little cottage I have found;
Of fair-hair'd Milton's eloquent distress,
And all his love for gentle Lycid drown'd;
Of lovely Laura in her light green dress,
And faithful Petrarch gloriously crown'd.
The sonnet is about many things. It helps bring the humanities and arts back to a human and personal scale, where friendships and discussion, personal ambition and aspiration, suffering and loss, poetry and imagination all matter. The sonnet also keeps beautifully in balance the uncertainties, risks, and even dangers of any important humane venture: it keeps these difficulties in balance with the possible satisfactions and rich rewards of great achievement.
Nearly everywhere in the poem, therefore, we can find the energies stimulated by companionship, love, faithfulness, and conversation. And there are also the remembered pain and distress of early death (as in Lycidas), or the pervasive sense of winter's approach and its quickening, dark encroachment--with its cold, its rustling dead leaves, and all its inevitable intimations of mortality.
So the sonnet creates a microdrama--the humanities and arts in miniature--full of apprehension but also of hope and momentary good cheer. And at the heart of the poem is a celebration of the restorative power of a dwelling place: of a home where the gathering of people stimulates good talk and aspiration; where ideas can be humanized, enriched, and perhaps occasionally even reconciled.
Of course, no large center for the humanities can expect to be the small Hampstead cottage of Keats's sonnet. But the Barker Center will, in its own way, enable us to begin new, fruitful, and timely conversations, so that there may well be many more times when each of us--like Keats--may feel "...little of the cool bleak air." Meanwhile, this evening, let us dedicate and celebrate the Barker Center, "gloriously crown'd."
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