Thoughts on Humanities
Thoughts on Humanities
by Clay Jenkinson
The thing heavy readers live for is to find someone we can call any time of day or night and say, "Sorry to call so late, but I want you to read the new translation of 'Crime and Punishment' as soon as you can."
Very few people want to take that call, so the life of the humanities scholar can be pretty frustrating, because in the end we find ourselves alone with books of such richness and beauty that they call for a larger community, and it can be difficult to assemble what one former president called "a coalition of the willing." In Larry Skogen and a few others, I have found that coalition. It's one of the principal joys of my life and my hope is that Conversations at BSC will broaden that community.
I know that in the minds of many I am regarded as a Jefferson pretender, or a Theodore Roosevelt scholar, or someone who has devoted much his life to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. All those things are true, but they do not begin to tell the whole story about my intellectual interests. My actual training has been in classical languages and classical cultures, in the history of Christianity and in Renaissance literature. This may be a surprise to folks who think of me as standing on stage in tights and a wig and pretending to be the third president of the United States. So when my good friend Larry Skogen, the president of Bismarck State College, invited me to lecture at BSC, I told him I wanted to have the opportunity to range in a whimsical way across the fields of the humanities. I wanted to lecture about some of my cultural heroes: Thoreau, Whitman, John Donne, the explorer Richard Francis Burton and North Dakota's great essayist and commentator Eric Sevareid. I told Larry that I wanted our audiences to have a sense of the amazing variety of subjects that can be turned into interesting and entertaining lectures and conversations. I said I wanted a forum to explore new themes, to stretch my mind into new places and to see what new arenas we can open during the course of this lecture series.
The central idea of the humanities is to understand history in context - but not in a straight linearity. I prefer to watch them exfoliate into a larger phenomenon, what one might call a Quantum Context.
In particular, I have become interested in "moments in history." For example, the same day that my hero J. Robert Oppenheimer tested the first atomic bomb, the new President Harry S. Truman was beginning his Great Power summit with Winston Churchill and Stalin in Potsdam, Germany. If you read studies of that conference and the state of occupied Germany at that specific time and then flash across the globe to the Valley of the Journey of Death in the New Mexico desert, you get a picture of something that is more interesting than either venue in isolation.
My goal is nothing short of turning on our audiences to the sheer possibilities of the life of the humanities - how strange history is, how filled with things that are much more interesting than our rather drab narratives of them. My hope is that Conversations at BSC will allow Larry Skogen and I to engage in true conversations, whimsical and un-pre-determined conversations that demonstrate how two people looking at the same set of texts or incidents can talk through them together in a way that is respectful and open-ended and - in the final analysis - unresolved. I hope our audiences can see that there is no final narrative of history, only a series of lenses put on by highly imperfect individuals with different backgrounds, different ways of seeing and different ways of articulating what they know, or what they think they know. I want the two of us to be able to disagree, sometimes powerfully, without shouting at each other. It is important that our audiences understand that people can disagree with civility and that nobody has a monopoly on truth.
I often say that this is the most exciting time of my life and I attribute it to a number of things, including my long training in the humanities, largely under the mentoring of my late friend Everett Albers. Also, my friendship with Larry Skogen, who is as open-minded and agreeable a friend as one could ever ask for, and my return to North Dakota where I can now concentrate on living and being present. North Dakota is so open a place that it invites an openness of outlook and intellectual exploration.
Furthermore, I am feeling the shadow of "time's winged chariot" these days, and I don't want to be one of those people who starts scaling down rather than ratcheting up. I'm not done exploring new authors, new themes, new incidents of history. I remember back in college when I first read Francis Bacon's letter in which he told a patron, "I have taken all knowledge to be my province." Not even the most mindful and resourceful people can do that in the 21st century, but I still try to live by Francis Bacon's motto.
We hope that people will come to our talks and find them interesting. I must say it's all perfectly exciting to me, especially because I have very little idea of what I am going to say once Larry opens the conversation.