One of my favorite humans in the world is my cousin Edwin. He makes a good living exporting used cars in Houston. We phone all the time to catch up on family gossip and to talk about movies or books. He was one of the few ones in my family who gave me moral, and sometimes financial, support to pursue a degree in English. He didn’t always understand why I would do such a thing with my life. “You could be a lawyer or a doctor,” he would declare, and immediately add the question “What’s the use of an English degree?” I suppose he supported me because he trusted me to know the answer to that question. “I believe in you,” he would remind me without an ounce of irony. I could always hear him thinking “but I have no clue what you’re doing or why.”
Edwin is a smart man, a self-starter who has built a robust business through perseverance, discipline and acumen. He appreciates a good story, preferably told through film, and a good debate about religion, where he usually lands on the side of skepticism. Over the years, we inevitably revisit the question of the English degree, “what’s the use?” The closest I’ve ever been to convincing him that what I do is worthwhile was the time I suggested that people who write films probably have a background in literature. You see, Edwin is a private person, not very interested in the public sphere, not even Facebook. My cousin was just happy to know that something he loves had a connection to what I do.
I’m guessing a large number of grown ups feel the same way as my cousin. I hear it all the time from worried parents who would prefer their kids to major in Engineering or Business, perhaps get a Law or Medical degree. We also hear the pundits, all the way to the President, asking the same question as Edwin in one way or another. Tens of thousands of us have answers, perhaps even millions. I myself have a whole range of answers, some for Edwin, some for anonymous parents, some for politicians, some for students, some even for other colleagues at the university who should know better.
I’ll give you my favorite one, the one that convinces me to do what I do: I work to steward and interpret our material inheritance. I hope I don’t need to point out that the past survives to us only through its material traces. We have objects like books, manuscripts, buildings, paintings, you name it; we also have oral traditions and rituals that pass down from generation to generation; we even have our own bodies telling stories about the past. I specialize in that part of the past that we can call the world of books and manuscripts, trying to understand that past and make sure that some of it continues to survive. That means I also have to teach others how to do the same.
Notice that our understanding of that material past changes what survives and what doesn’t. I’ll give you an example. Many libraries in North America right now are digitizing print books and converting them to “e-books.” Some believe that by doing so they are getting rid of “legacy” containers. What they fail to take to heart is that the new thing is not the same as the old, and what is meant to survive now is something created in 2013, not 1913 or 1613. Of course, much of what we know of our past comes to us because of this telephone game, the Bible being one of the most famous examples. This ancient game has involved many players with less than noble agendas and many others who were uninformed, in many cases with horrible consequences for us. I do what I do because I know that our sense of who we are and our roles in the world depend on it.
Perhaps we might reach a point where we don’t try to save the past or try to understand it because we forgot how to do it, what we were doing or because we stopped caring. We’re not there yet. I know we all definitely have things we would like everyone to forget, things we would prefer not to understand. You can also tell that those who seem not to care are usually just trying to push their own version of the stories, in many cases painting a rosier picture, in others a very poor one. In the United States, for example, some folks are trying to convince those without access to education that the US Constitution was written by God. Obviously, these folks are not interested in getting rid of the past, they just want to transform it into a fairy tale. While we play the telephone game, what I do is also a struggle. If the time comes when we don’t care anymore about the past, and become a “race of immortals” as Jorge Luis Borges called people without a need for collective memory, then I won’t care either; I’ll be right there with you doing whatever it is we’re being compelled to do or just having fun.
In any case, my favorite reason for doing this is only a drop in the bucket. Here’s another great answer, this time by friend and colleague, Natalia Cecire. Like Natalia and me, many others have already answered, for centuries, but we need more, tons more. This is where the bus tour comes in, the “Humanities Matters Bus Tour” to be precise. We are “folks on a mission to defend Humanities education by taking a cross-country bus trip and documenting the evidence.” We are asking for your help financing the trip. If we succeed, our goal is to capture hundreds or thousands of video clips answering Edwin’s question, “What’s the use?” We are going up the East Coast of the United States starting in Virginia, and all across the continent near the Canadian border. We will stop in many cities, at many universities, to ask students, professors and librarians “Why do the humanities matter?” We want to hear as many diverse voices as possible, from Historians and Artists to Engineers and Economists.
Supporting the bus is one way to help us convince others to study or encourage others to study, teach and talk about Literature, History, Music, Art, Languages, etc. Here’s a couple of reasons why I like the bus in particular as a way to go out there and remind North America and the world why the humanities matter: the bus ride will be tons of fun (I mean, that one is just self-evident); we are capturing the most voices on video to speak at once in praise of the humanities of any other project before us, each of those voices, personal and professional, painting a picture of our very humanity in the process; we are highlighting the ways in which the humanities are also about building and reshaping cultural memory, and working collaboratively. They don’t call the original bus the MakerBus for nothing.
(I’ll let you in on a secret if you promise not to tell anyone: Our bus is also the illegitimate child of Furthur and a bookmobile in New Orleans. What could go wrong?)
We have six days of fundraising to go, and unless we get large infusions, we won’t be able to fund the bus. Help us #getonthebus. To contribute please visit our Kickstarter campaign or help us spread the word. Our twitter handler is @humbustour. You can also write to me directly if you want to make a contribution larger than $1000 and would like to know more details.