Why Teach Humanities?

I teach a religion class that requires weekly “check-ins,” short responses to some passage in the reading assigned. This Spring students have just finished reading Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk. 

Here is a response that confirms my sense that great (and even minor) humanities texts can carry unexpected riches, can probe the soul in ways no one can foresee.

It also illustrates how the genesis of a powerful insight can be shrouded in mist and confusion and unclarity. Here is the email, signature removed:

Professor Mooney,

As I near the end of “Cloister Walk”, I realize I have struggled to find passages that mean something to me. Nevertheless, the book has been endlessly interesting.

Below is an excerpt from a reaction I had to an early quote in the book.

           Norris: “I felt as hard and dry as the bristly grasses of early fall, as exhausted as the drought-            stricken trees around me. Then Gregory reminded me of the greatness of souls, how their true strength can emerge in the worst of times, when the known world is collapsing. ‘My mind divided’, he said of himself, ‘torn to pieces by so many problems.’”

I could not find my own words to better describe my current state, and the country’s current state. I write this a week after Donald Trump has become president. I have participated in two different protests in a matter of one week. I feel emotionally exhausted, lost, confused, left wondering what values are held by the people of this country – the people I know and love.

I am a policy studies student who graduates in a few months. My entire plan of probable careers is shifting. My mother is a teacher in Michigan. She has dealt with the atrocities of DeVos long before she became a household name throughout the country. She fears for her job, her school, and her students. I have friends who work at Catholic Charities. They are unsure how long they will have their jobs. They go to work every day, trying to comfort the fears, confusion, and sadness of their clients. Several of their clients are separated from husbands, wives, or children, and because of current policies, will continue to be separated. My partner is from Turkey and is Muslim. He is afraid that he will be forced to leave. I am afraid he will be humiliated by my government, mistreated by my fellow citizens, and possibly be told he must leave. I worry for what that means for him, for me, for this whole country.

 

This shows how a thoughtful writer (Norris) can filter her own experience through a piece of Scripture and prompt her reader (our student) to filter her own experience through a text previously unknown.

The humanities give us access to modulations of experience that prompt modulations of experience. That modulation needn’t clarify much more than a region of life that resists easy clarification. We resonate with times past and that makes presents vivid, in melancholy or joy or both.

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