(Editor’s Note: Vince Kavaloski, Professor of Philosophy, retired in December after nearly thirty years of serving students both in and out of the classroom. Widely published and active in the community of Greater Madison, he was named Global Citizen of the Year by the United Nations Association, Dane County Chapter in 2013, and during his career was honored with the Underkoffler Distinguished Teaching Award.)
In these last months of my Edgewood College teaching, I would like to share some of my questions, my insights and my hopes for this unique and caring learning community.
Today in an age of burgeoning global economics and exploding information technology, it is frequently asked: “Are the Humanities obsolete? Do the ancient studies of history, philosophy, literature, and religion really matter anymore?”
If the Humanities are only a dusty museum of long-dead writers to be ceremoniously bowed to and then ignored, or “merely endless specialized debates amongst ill-tempered professors,” then the honest answer is “No, the Humanities, as just academic disciplines, don’t really matter much today.’’
But I see a vision of an Engaged Humanities that liberates our minds from ignorance and prejudice. Dr. Martin Luther King said that this liberation must come through the cultivation of “tough minds and tender hearts,” critical thinking combined with compassion.
I see a vision of an Engaged Humanities that is a shared search for meaning, just as Dr. King searched through history and across the globe to articulate the meaning of the Civil Rights Movement. The sciences give us knowledge; the arts, inspiration and beauty; the professions, useful skills. But it is the unique and difficult duty of the Humanities to seek the shared meaning and moral purpose behind all of this.
I see a vision of an Engaged Humanities that uses the powerful and democratic method of dialogue to advance its search for truth. Robert Maynard Hutchins referred to this dialogue across history and space as the “Great Conversation,” and the philosopher Kant in a similar vein spoke of “genius calling to genius down across the centuries.”
But we recognize today that many voices were unjustly excluded from this “great conversation:” voices of women, non-Europeans, and the poor. And so in the Humanities today, Homer, Socrates, Thucydides and Shakespeare are joined by such voices as Dorothy Day, Maya Angelou, Malala Yousafzai, Kathy Kelly, Mahatma Gandhi, Baghdad Kahn, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez, as well as our own ever more diverse student body. And the dialogue is the richer for it.
Through the inclusion of these newer and more diverse voices, new incisive questions are arising within the Humanities. And they join with the old enduring questions.
- In a global age of booming wealth for the few and poverty for the many, the Humanities ask: “What is justice?”
- In an information age, where we sometimes drown in data, lost in information smog, the Humanities ask: “What is worth knowing?” and “How do we know that we know it?”
- In an age of ultra-specialization, the Humanities ask: “What are the unifying patterns that integrate knowledge and give meaning to our lives?”
- In an age of conspicuous consumption and triumphant materialism, the Humanities ask: “Is the Good Life the same as the Goods Life?”
- In an age of global violence and ethnic conflict, the Humanities ask: “What are the nonviolent methods for resolving conflict?” and “How can we begin to think like global citizens and not just global consumers?”
The ideas and ideals of 3,000 years of the Humanities Dialogue dwell among us. We dialogue with each other and living spirits that we cannot see. We walk in the light cast by greatness. We are not alone.
In closing, and as a farewell to my friends, students, and colleagues, I also would like to share my hopes for Edgewood College in the years ahead.
- May Edgewood College become not an Ivory Tower, but a “World House,” where diverse voices, all across our planet, join together in dialogue.
- May the windows and doors of our “World House” be open to the winds from all cultures and all religions, to join in our shared search for meaning.
- May the wisdom of the past encounter the great issues of the present in an Engaged Humanities, as expressed in service-learning.
- May our students here develop what Dr. King called “tough minds and tender hearts” because both wisdom and compassion are necessary to become a whole human person and a citizen of this planet.
- May the teaching of the history and philosophy of active nonviolence permeate the Humanities, so that this planet and humanity itself will continue to exist and flourish.
- And most important of all, may you continue to build learning on the values which we cherish: Truth, Justice, Community, Compassion and Partnership.