If I tell you that a woman smiled and a man cried, I’ve given you facts. If I tell you that a woman smiled and a man cried as their daughter said “I do,” I’ve given you a glimpse of humanity.
This twist on an E.M. Forster adage offers a vivid illustration of the way the humanities affect our view of the world around us. By providing depth, perspective and context, the humanities open our eyes to the many layers that lie below the surface of events, ideas, issues and debates.
Won’t added layers just add complication? Who needs that?
We all do, especially in a time when the media, political conversations and popular culture seem to be filled with polarized and polarizing talk.
So, I urge you to use this post-election season to embrace the humanities as a means to a greater society. This means taking the time to reach broader and deeper, look beyond what’s obvious and tap into other resources for information and understanding.
How do you do that? By asking questions.
The most obvious question might be: Why does that building look like that? Why does that politician say those things? Why did our predecessors make it this way? Why do those people celebrate on that day? Next, try asking: How did people react? How did the writer come to that conclusion? How did the chef create those flavors? How did the engineers decide where to put the bridge? How did the carpenter get the wood to bend that way? How did that law come to be?
Where did these herbs come from? Where did that violinist study? Where does that road go? Where did that sculptor grow up?
Who built that house? Who was the first person to (fill in the blank)? Who do our leaders turn to when they have questions?
What caused that to happen? What was going on when that book was written? What language did that word come from? What animal made those footprints?
When was this song popular? When was that monument built?
So you’ve asked a question. Now what? Listen closely and openly. Hear new ideas. Hear different points of view. Hear more than the obvious.
Choose any issue or topic that intrigues you, confounds you or enrages you. Ask questions. Get opposing views. Check out an artist’s interpretation. Read a book about it. Delve into history. Listen to a lecture. Debate with a friend.
This isn’t about changing your mind. It’s about creating a stronger foundation for the things you believe, about giving you a bigger context for the opinions you hold, and about listening for a deeper understanding of the world around you.
Through this process, the humanities open our eyes to the complications that already exist — the complications that make life more beautiful, more meaningful and more livable. As a result, they make us better citizens and neighbors. They make us more human.
Amstutz is president and CEO of the Indiana Humanities Council in Indianapolis.