“What do the Humanities do? I would argue that they help us understand ourselves and the world in which we live. When we read, we listen to words, respond to behavior, and try to judge what people’s mindset is. We “read” human behavior every day in our interaction with colleagues, family, friends, and public figures, and our reading improves our knowledge, perspicacity, judgment, and sensitivity. In other words reading helps us make sense of our lives and the world we live in.
Reading literature and experiencing music, dance, live theatre, and the visual arts are as much part of our life experience as other events and can have a similar impact. The Humanities contribute to our moral, historical, and political awareness; this occurs even if the events described in a literary text, a painting or sculpture, or an operatic or theatrical performance are more imaginative than factually accurate.
Thus Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1898), with its stress on European imperial greed and racist exploitation of Africans, helps us understand the history of the country now called the Democratic Republic of Congo — formerly the Belgian Congo — and to some extent other former colonies in Africa. E.M. Forster’s Passage to India (1924) helps us understand India, particularly the continued divide between Muslims and Hindus and the more recent efforts in India to move beyond both its caste system and its colonial past to define itself as an inclusive democracy.
Let me turn to a current event, namely, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea from the Ukraine. What follows is not an apology for Putin’s outrageous and duplicitous behavior but an effort to understand it through the lens of literature. . . . .”