Topic: Humanities

The Journey vs. the Map

Engaging Diversity in the Humanities Classroom

What does it mean to truly know something? And how can we humanities educators help our undergraduate students grow in their knowledge of themselves, others, and life? Many of us face classrooms embodying a wide range of backgrounds. This is true both in terms of students’ demographics and in terms of their levels of educational preparation. In some fields, the latter might be a liability, but in ours it is a potential asset, due to the nature of knowledge and the power of diversity. Our challenge is to harness that potential.

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A Light-Hearted Requiem for Old Europe

Reflections on The Grand Budapest Hotel

One must forgive some viewers for mistaking Wes Anderson’s recent film The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) for comedy. The film was billed as such. But, as in the case of its titular edifice and the rest of Anderson’s corpus, beneath a light-hearted veneer lurks deep melancholy. Ostensibly this is a caper about a hotel concierge dodging murder charges while chasing a vast fortune. At the same time, it is also a portrait of Old Europe—along with its Jewishness—in the midst of its dying. Beneath the film’s cartoonish frivolity lies that tragedy.

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The Minds of Others

Reading Advice for Extroverts

Have you ever wanted to read someone’s mind? That is the power of books. They invite us into the minds of others, to see the world through their eyes. The bookish among us know this. This essay is not for them. I have a friend who is a well-educated and thoughtful people person. He recently admitted to me that he has little desire to read—but he wants to want to read. This essay is for him and for those like him.

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Perverse Incentives

What College Rankings Actually Do

American colleges and universities rise and fall based on their rising and falling in a handful of rankings. This is true to a significant extent in terms of their finances, reputations, and general welfare. Up and up or down and down, as goes its rank, so goes the university. U.S. News and World Report’s is the most influential. Forbes, The Princeton Review, and others offer alternatives with slightly different methodologies and surprisingly similar results. All purport to demonstrate which colleges and universities have the best academic programs. All of them fail to do so. By virtue of measuring many things unrelated to quality of education, they incentivize the diverting of resources away from educating students.

The established rankings show institutional wealth, both directly and indirectly. They also show an institution’s popularity, both among prospective students, enrolled students, and faculty at peer institutions. Many also emphasize how well their incoming students performed in high school, shown by grades and standardized test scores. The rankings show little else. But by providing the illusion of demonstrating educational quality, the rankings incentivize many things but not support for the actual quality of education at any given institution.

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Our Cross to Bear

Conclusions on Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 7 of 7)

We as a society are busy pointing out crises. Some pending disasters merely threaten to destroy individuals, while others threaten communities or even our species. Yet, we often seem disinclined to take action. The reasons include disagreements about which crises are real, which ones are critical, and how to best approach them. We should be not only resolving present crises but discerning their source and how to prevent future ones.

In the preceding weeks’ meditations on the nature of collective guilt and shared human responsibility, a number of general principles are evident.

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The Air We Breathe

The Environment and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 6 of 7)

The polar caps are melting. Extreme weather events occur with greater frequency. Air quality has reached abysmal levels in major urban areas worldwide. Global consumption vastly outstrips the replenishment of natural resources. Many individuals respond to these realities with denial, cynicism, and a sense of futility. Rather than defining terms and demonstrating premises, this post will take these facts as givens; those seeking to contest them had best look elsewhere.

As urgently as any current crisis and with great clarity, the state of the environment demonstrates both the at times collective nature of guilt and the shared nature of human responsibility. In fact, to a greater extent than other issues explored thus far in this series, the environment illustrates with particular clarity a general principle governing guilt and responsibility: distribution is uneven. While guilt and responsibility may transcend individuals, some individuals are implicated more directly and fully than others.

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From Brother to Brother

Gender, Sexuality, and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 5 of 7)

Many people in the world face the persistent threat of sexual assault and see their career prospects diminished because of their gender, as a recent study shows. Some of these same individuals—but also many others—face ridicule and rejection because they find themselves attracted to people of the same gender. Some face similar treatment because they find themselves from a very early age alienated from their own bodies, understanding their gender identity to be other than their biological sex.

And then there is the rest of humanity. Some of us have the luxury of being able to ignore others’ struggles and to deny that gender and sexual identity define our lives in significant measure. Not all of us do ignore or deny their impact—and none of us should—but many can and some do. Straight, non-trans men, that’s us.

Ironically (and perhaps unfortunately), the cause of justice for women, including transwomen, for transmen, for gays, and for those who reject traditional binary definitions of gender and/or sexuality, depends in part measure on us.

I am not advocating the idea that women need men more than men need women. Neither am I proposing an androcentric noblesse oblige. Rather, I am drawing attention to the facts that those who are straight, non-trans, and male have been among the greatest perpetrators of injustice against those who are not, and that those of us who are not perpetrators are too often silent. People need people, and humanity needs all the people—or at least the vast majority of the people—to be on board with solving its most pressing issues. Issues of justice relating to gender and sexuality are no different.

You do not even need to believe that non-traditional approaches to gender and sexuality are moral to recognize that you and people like you, including your faith community, have been complicit in failing to love all people and love them well.

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Sometimes Seeing Clearly Means Knowing When to Look Away

Grasping the Horrors of the Holocaust is a Struggle. It Ought to Be.

As a Ph.D. student, I spent the better part of three years researching the Holocaust and its legacy. While I focused on the response of a group of Protestant nuns living in its aftermath, my research was broad enough that it spanned both the poetry and theology of Jewish survivors, as well as the propaganda of those who promoted and committed it. For example, I read Mein Kampf and I loathed it, but I do not regret it. One cannot understand humanity without understanding the depths of human evil. At the same time, one can only understand the potential height of faith and hope by learning from those who confronted such senseless hate first-hand. Convinced of this necessity, I have continued to explore the theological legacy of the Holocaust and its emotional toll on the survivors and their families.

Yet sometimes the weight is more than I feel I can bear. And so it is that for the second time I will be presenting on religion and science-fiction at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Neither my initial presentation nor my latest one has had anything to do with the Holocaust. When one of the staff members at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum asked me if I would consider applying for a research fellowship, I answered, “I want to… but not yet. Sometimes part of seeing clearly is knowing when to look away.”

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The Grace Beyond the Pines

Humanizing the Victims of Violence in Film

The task of the artist is to convey truth, in all its beauty, ugliness, and harshness, to paraphrase Nietzsche. The truth about humanity is often an ugly thing. We kill. We abandon. We destroy. Too many films glorify such things. A rare few appear to critique them, even as they glorify them, as Tarantino arguably often does. Fortunately, there are exceptions that critique while refusing to glorify violence and its consequences.

Directed by Derek Cianfrance, The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) depicts the parallel and sometimes intersecting lives of a cop and a criminal in a small town in upstate New York. With equal attention to both protagonists, one on each side of that equation, the film stands alongside Heat (1995) and The Departed (2006). Like those two films, The Place Beyond the Pines is a high caliber action-drama, tightly plotted, tautly suspenseful, and rife with moral ambiguity; but unlike those two films, The Place Beyond the Pines excels in depicting the emotional toll of violence on its victims, on its perpetrators, and on those around them.

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Steve Jobs Made the World a Worse Place

Simone Weil’s Blasphemy Against Popular Culture

When Steve Jobs died on October 5, 2011, there were numerous public outpourings of grief. Makeshift shrines dotted the globe. There is no doubt that his less-is-more technological aesthetic improved the technological and aesthetic experience of many people. When his engineers presented plans for a mouse with three buttons, he insisted that they pare them down to one. When other operating systems required users to memorize arcane codes to accomplish the most rudimentary tasks, he led a team to create a simple and visually engaging interface that has remained the industry standard. After his company seemed to be yesterday’s news and the mobile phone industry seemed immune to substantial innovation, he masterminded an entire genre of devices as powerful and versatile as they are compact. In short, Steve Jobs led his company to develop hardware that was beautiful and easy to use.

This is a bad thing. Here is why. We already live in an era defined by a shortage of time and an excess of distraction. Those of us affluent enough to own an iSomething – and yes, relative to the standards of the rest of the world, this is a mark of affluence – face an even greater degree of temptation. When you feel happy, it may be more tempting to share that information rather than embrace the fullness of that moment and that feeling, as the recent story of the distracted driver and ensuing car wreck illustrate.

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