The distinguished American author Ursula Le Guin tells us that "time is not interval but intensity." Alas, I wish that pithy observation spoke to my lived sense of time's dissolution and my work as an historian. It seems as if only yesterday I last penned these "reflections." Such observations, like that of Le Guin's, however, do remind me that the fundamental subject of humanistic inquiry is our collective past as that past is understood, interpreted and changed by the historical record. Ever since Gilgamesh was composed – and likely before -- scholars have been asking questions that seek to understand the human condition. Such questions persist and resist solutions. Perhaps that is the reason human inquiry is attracted to them. There is a challenge in the seemingly insoluble, the problem that endures for every generation anew. At times, I think the French proverb plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose might be closer to the truth than we would like to admit. Yet, it is our thoughtful response as educators and scholars to these perennial questions that promotes self-understanding and leads us towards building a more enlightened civil society. The fellows resident in the Humanities Center and our visiting distinguished speakers have been posing and providing answers to some of these most pressing and enduring questions.
This academic year has been a particularly productive and busy time in the Center. In this our third year we have had more than a dozen distinguished visiting scholars, both national and international, visit and who offered seminars and public lectures. Their subjects ranged widely from religion in the Greco Roman world to the ethics of Kant, to the role of poor rural women in the Communist Chinese Cultural Revolution, to the photographs of Lewis Hine of small children working in the American South at the end of the 19th century, and to the digitization of the world's books. Our new outreach program "Conversations and Cocktails" has proven very successful as our distinguished faculty bring the fruits of their research to the wider Knoxville community. These talks also make that most salient point that the humanities are crucial to the construction and maintenance of human dignity and civil society. A society without an understanding of its history is amnesiac. Our faculty work tirelessly to keep such history alive and through the faculty research seminars continue to promote exciting intellectual discoveries. I am pleased to say that the participants in those seminars have received prestigious national awards, like Fulbright and NEH fellowships.
Our weekly luncheon seminars (now winding down) have been lively and informative, and engage a dizzying array of disciplines. Sitting in on these seminars, you would have heard conversations about if and why the early Virginia colonists traded illegally with the Dutch, or why Spinoza's rabbi wrote his treatise against Christianity, or what the intensity of religious ferment was like during the reign of James I, or whether ancient Chinese soldiers were literate, or how conservative evangelical university students cope with the secular pluralism of colleges and universities. Watch for our list of future luncheon seminars and call and reserve a seat.
The Humanities Center is now newly sponsoring, along with the Philosophy Department, the Ethics Bowl. This outreach program is especially crucial in fostering mature intellectual debate and dialogue. While it is intended to hone one's reasoning ability, it is also intended to teach respect for the other's point of view. Reasoned civil debate avoiding ad hominem arguments seems to be on holiday at present. Let us hope it is a short one and that programs like the Ethics Bowl instill in young people a deep appreciation for truth and reasoned civil discourse.
Finally, we have just finished the selection for our fourth class of Humanities Center fellows (class of 2015) whose breadth of intellectual interests is stunning. It is heartening to see most of the major disciplines in the humanities represented in this class of fellows and the proposed research areas so creatively imagined.
The Humanities Center welcomes your comments, observations and your visit. Please see our web page for upcoming events at http://uthumanitiesctr.utk.edu
Thomas J. Heffernan, Director