Attention Must be Paid!

Who would think that just across the street from our abode I would be treated to a series of exceptional educational evenings courtesy of the Vineyard Haven Public Library. That’s where the William Faulkner scholar Phillip Weinstein is enlightening a packed house about two of Faulkner’s key works: “The Sound and the Fury” (no easy read!) and “Light in August.”

"The Sound and the Fury" with my Compson family tree notes to help me keep that dysfunctional clan straight!

“The Sound and the Fury” with my Compson family tree notes to help me keep that dysfunctional clan straight!


A big thanks to Betty Burton, who heads up the library’s adult programs, and Phil, a seasonal Vineyard resident and English Professor at Swarthmore College. Oh, he’s also the author of “Becoming Faulkner: The Art and Life of William Faulkner,” former head of the William Faulkner Society and has published papers including “Faulkner’s Subject: A Cosmos No One Owns” and “What Else But Love? The Ordeal of Race in Faulkner and Morrison.” He knows of what he speaks! At Swarthmore, his courses have included: “Faulkner, Morrison, and the Representation of Race” and “The Subject in Question.” That offering is described as follows..

How do we become who we are? What social discourses and practices enable the shaping of identity? How does reading affect this process? This course will explore the ways in which subjectivity and ideology interpenetrate within a range of texts and our commentary upon them. Writers will include Shakespeare, Flaubert, Kafka, Faulkner, Rich, Morrison, and DeLillo. Theoretical essays may also be assigned.

Isn’t any humanities course that addresses a question like “How do we become who we are?” a must for young adults?! Recently, The New York Times ran a page one story that caught my attention: “Interest Fading in Humanities, Colleges Worry.” Yikes! That is worrisome. Not surprisingly, the fear is that the humanities are loosing favor to STEM offerings. Not being a STEM herd, the acronym was new to me. It’s the term for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. No wonder. Whenever possible, I avoided the STEM Gang like the plague in any of my past centers of higher learning.

The article points out that “while humanities majors often have trouble landing their first job, their professors say that over the long term, employers highly value their critical thinking skills.” I mean who would you rather sit next to at dinner, a STEM nerd or Phil Weinstein!

But this is no laughing matter. Look at the definition of humanities on the Stanford University website to see the importance of how the subjects clustered under the heading of humanities such as English or history can shape an aware global citizen:

The humanities can be described as the study of the myriad ways in which people, from every period of history and from every corner of the globe, process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world. These modes of expression have become some of the subjects that traditionally fall under the humanities umbrella. Knowledge of these records of human experience gives us the opportunity to feel a sense of connection to those who have come before us, as well as to our contemporaries.

Don’t we have to better “understand our world” to make it a better one…albeit with the help of technology in getting the message across, for example, via social media?

As Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, noted in The Times article, “Many do not understand that the study of humanities offers skills that will help them sort out values, conflicting issues and fundamental philosophical questions.”

At Stanford, the history department’s courses “teach the foundational knowledge and skills (analytical, interpretive, writing) necessary for understanding the deep connections between past and present.” Outmoded thinking, not applicable to solving today’s conflicts around the world? Hardly!

Alas, Stanford is out of reach for me – geographically and academically. But I’ve got the little library that could and does help me understand the world in which we live.

The Vineyard Haven Public Library, a stone's throw from our house. Lucky me.

The Vineyard Haven Public Library, a stone’s throw from our house. Lucky me.

One thought on “Attention Must be Paid!

  1. As a literature geek (yes, STEM folks, the humanities can claim them too!), I loved your comments about the ways books and humanities teach us about the world–and how lasting that impact can be. I’ve kept sane through many work days looking at my crazy work mates from the perspective of a novelist!

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