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What Is “the Humanities”?

August 24, 2016

In yesterday’s “All Together Now” I mentioned an experience that put that to the question. This is a short tale, but worth a page of its own. The lesson has haunted me for 45+ years.

The activities in the project funded by “The Endowment for the Humanities” included direct actions that addressed needs such as housing and employment, plus public talks and panels in which we tried to provide enlightening perspectives from history, philosophy (critical reasoning), and literature. Those are the major academic disciplines in the “humanities” departments of universities. The purpose of this program of the Endowment was to bring what they offer to audiences outside the university, in ways that had practical relevance.

Scam for the privileged?  Partly. Important fields of research and education?  Definitely. Could be brought to bear in public programs that would enrich the lives of citizens outside of academia?  Could.

Of course all printed matter included recognition of the sponsoring “Endowment for the Humanities.”

At that time, before soy went big, if you drove around central Indiana you saw not only corn but miles of fields of tomatoes. In August you could buy tomatoes really cheap. In fact, one of my colleagues who taught in the marketing department, and whose uncle was one of the biggest and notoriously crookedest, tomato field owners, would buy car hulks from the salvage lot, park them at corner gas stations, and fill them, overflowing, with tomatoes that you could buy for 10 cents a pound. Them was the days.

That was also before development of tasteless varieties of tomatoes that are tough enough to be harvested by machines. All those cheap tomatoes, millions, I would guess, were picked from the ground by migrant workers, who were underpaid, mistreated, and housed in squalor.

With help from a traveling field director for migrant services, and local organizations, we put together an evening program on the subject of housing conditions for migrant workers. I don’t remember a thing about the content of the program. But afterwards a few of the workers came to the front with a question. They were confused, because we had talked a lot about the history of labor and such, but the flyer said this would be about an endowment for the humanities.

We were happy to see them there, and we explained the areas of expertise that we brought from the university—“into the field,” one might say, but we weren’t that stupid. Frankly we were a bit shaky about whether we were doing anybody any good.

“Oh,” a worker said. “Thank you. You are concerned about us. It would be good if more people were interested, as we see you are. We thought this was an endowment for the peoples.”

  1. What an unexpected, powerful confluence.
    First, the contrast between industrial and real tomatoes — the kind that make us garden and anticipate 10 months to taste anew.
    And second, the pickers, knowledgeable in the difference.
    Anyone else see this as political?

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