Humanities: A Key Ring of Learning and Wisdom

Heard on Campus | Perspectives in the Humanities (PIH) recently celebrated its first decade as a residentially based learning community inside Kingscourt-English House. Dr. Toni Bowers, PIH’s founding faculty director and associate professor of English, used the occasion to underscore the importance of the humanities: 

The binary thinking that would set humanism against technology, or commerce, or medicine, or whatever, shares the fatal flaw of all binary thinking: it neglects crucial scenes of overlap—the places where options that may appear mutually exclusive in fact participate with and enable one another. “Humanism,” after all, is historically aligned with the European Renaissance, and one of its most recognizable embodiments is the so-called “Renaissance man” or “Renaissance humanist”: a person whose education was signaled by his broad range of interests, the sharpness of his intellectual tools, his curiosity, his tolerance, and his capacity for enjoyment. We might think of the Renaissance humanist as an historically specific version of any truly educated person— the kind of person who remains always aware of how little he or she really knows, and who stands throughout life at a kind of intellectual attention, capable of changing and ready to learn.

In the 17th century, a Renaissance man named George Herbert celebrated his humanistic education this way: Herbert imagined the world and all its mysteries as a building with many doors; his education he saw as a set of keys. Some keys he had already used, in his formal studies, to open certain doors. The fact that other doors remained closed did not discourage or frighten George Herbert, because he knew that as an educated person—a person who had learned to think and change— he had the equipment necessary to unlock any doors. As Herbert put it:

I know the ways of learning … , Both the old discoveries, and the new-found seas, The stock and surplus, cause and history; All these stand open, or I have the keys.

Few of us will ever be in possession of George Herbert’s very heavy key ring of learning and wisdom. But each of us every day is assembling our own set of keys, and it’s important that we forge them thoughtfully, with the goal of opening as many doors as possible.

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