the humanities: do we love to hate them, or hate to love them?

Back in January, we took a family trip to Gettysburg. As part of a school project, my 16-year old son had to visit a historical site related to the Civil War. In typical teenager fashion, Gareth waited until the week before the project was due to choose the battle of Gettysburg.

Then it snowed.

Undaunted, and unwilling to give up a family outing with my teenagers, we trekked to the battlefield two hours away. When we got there, we discovered several of the locations Gareth wanted to visit were barricaded due to snow and ice.

I am a do-gooder rule-follower, so I took this news with resignation, telling Gareth he should have planned better. My husband, on the other hand, persisted. He asked every ranger he saw about the accessibility of certain areas, especially Little Round Top.

I berated him. What did he expect them to do, give him secret instructions on where to park so we could sneak past the barricades?

Yes.

So there we were, stealing through the snow around bright orange “Do Not Enter” signs and climbing over the icy rock face of Little Round Top as instructed by one lone ranger. I looked over my shoulder more than once, expecting to see a more rule-oriented official approaching with a stun gun.

Instead, a bus load of Naval Academy midshipmen arrived. I guess they got the secret sneak-past-the-barrier instructions too. These seniors, or midshipmen first class, had come for a lesson in battlefield strategy. Afterward, we were told, they would return to the academy where they would each take command of a company.

These were the Navy’s future leaders.

Unlike us, I imagine they had permission to proceed with their tour despite the icy conditions. They had to know we didn’t belong there, but they were polite, chatting and mingling with us on the hill.

Then the Navy contingent congregated at the end of what had been the Union line, where Colonel Joshua Chamberlain is famed to have held off the Confederates with a bayonet charge.

When the Navy instructor climbed up on a rock, we all gathered around to listen. I stood toward the back, willing my civilian mommy garb to blend in.

After a brief introduction of the battle scene, the instructor said, “So, you may or many not know that Joshua Chamberlain was a professor of rhetoric.”

I nodded, “yes” and straightened up, feeling suddenly as if I belonged in this conversation. The instructor continued, “Any rhetoric majors here?” His voice had a smirky tone to it that reminded me of the way Fox News used to say John Kerry’s name during his presidential campaign.

At the question, I heard low derisive chuckles of which the meaning was clear: “Ridiculous! Of course there are no rhetoric majors among the future leaders of the United States Navy!”

I stood up even straighter, military straight shall we say, and looked around me. An open scowl on my face. Military leadership does not require good communication skills?

Then the instructor asked if anyone knew the three tenets of argumentation. At this, the midshipmen shuffled their first class feet.

They didn’t know.

I felt myself inch forward a step or two. Steve watched me out of the corner of his eye, worrying about what I might do. We were already trespassers after all.

I could hardly contain myself. Was there room for me on the rock? Should I take over the lesson?

Before I could embarrass anyone (especially myself), a young man nearby mumbled something about pathos. Someone else joined in – yes and ethos, right? Others agreed. I heard less shuffling but still more snickering. I think they were embarrassed to admit that yes, in fact, they did know something about rhetoric.

I felt relieved, if only marginally. These young men and women would assume leadership positions when they returned to school. How could they do so without knowing a thing or two about the art of persuasion and diplomacy? How could they lead effectively in high-pressure situations without the practiced balance of ethos, pathos and logos?

I inched yet another step forward. Could I take the rock? I imagined myself diving for it, scrambling up and giving the instructor a swift shove. I wanted to validate the students who spoke up and point out the great irony in the fact they mocked the profession of the soldier who, by most accounts, saved the day on Little Round Top in July of 1863.

But in another irony, I didn’t have to. The instructor picked up the lesson himself. In an unexpected reversal, he pointed out that perhaps Chamberlain was the perfect man to hold the flank that day because his broad education contrasted the more narrow military training of the other Union leaders present. Chamberlain saw the bigger picture, the instructor continued. He saw the importance of his position on the flank without having to be told. He’d also cultivated a strong ethos with his men, persuading them to fight, even when they’d run out of ammunition.

Now I wanted to leap up on the rock and cheer (I guess I wanted to be on that rock no matter how things were going).

But how strange.

Had the instructor played off the way folks love to hate the humanities to make a point about how important they are? If so, why deliver such an important lesson in this eleventh hour of education and training?

Perhaps he just saw me coming, musket in hand, ready to commandeer the high ground if he didn’t get his story straight.

I didn’t get a chance to ask, so I’ll never know the instructor’s motivations for sure, but I was reminded of this trip when President Obama beat up on art history majors a few weeks later.

In case you missed it:

Then I was reminded again when President Obama apologized for his comments in a hand-written note to Art History Professor Ann Collins Johns a few weeks after that. It turns out President Obama loves art history: it was one of his favorite subjects in high school.

To report on the apology, Fareed Zakaria interviewed art history major and staff writer for the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik. When I saw the headline, “Are the Humanities Worth Studying?” I thought, “Here we go again!” But Zakaria must be a humanities supporter as well because it’s a softball interview that sets Gopnik up to tell us why the humanities matter: “because we’re human.”

Of course.

But the love-to-hate-the-humanities phenomenon is real. The Navy instructor played off it to get his students’ attention. President Obama used it to make a point about the economic viability of vocational training, and Zakaria used it to attract viewers. (Otherwise, why not lead with, “Why the Humanities are Worth Studying”–a more accurate but less inciting tag).

The really interesting thing about all this hating, then, is that no one really means it. The humanities make an easy target because degrees in language, history and literature do not align with neat revenue-driven categories like accountant, engineer or brick layer. We can make fun of them for that, but in the end, we can’t help but love them anyway.

Which is encouraging.

And so President Obama apologized. Zakaria let Gopnik speak unfettered, and my Navy instructor brought his lecture back around to celebrate Chamberlain’s training.

As for me I am glad that, in the end, I did not have to do battle for the rock.  Instead, I melted back into the crowd–satisfied with the turn of events.

And Gareth, who isn’t a fan of school with its rows of lockers and chairs, had a blast walking the open fields in Gettysburg, imagining the soldiers who once marched and died there.

History is one of few subjects that brings him to life.

And why not? He is human, after all.

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