Fall Conference 2017

The Double-Edged Sword of Technology

“It’s through the Humanities that we define ourselves.”

Attendees at our Fall Conference 2017 enjoyed a stirring acceptance speech from Marsha Cassel of Rutland High School, the winner of our 2017 Victor R. Swenson Humanities Educator Award. Here is the text of that speech.

Thank you very much.

I would like to especially thank all of the members of the Board of the Vermont Humanities Council who considered me for this recognition, with special thanks to Executive Director Peter Gilbert and Board Chair Ben Doyle who invited me and welcomed me here today, and Mr. Victor Swenson, whose name this award carries and whose vision and service to the Council launched the important work, which is our legacy to preserve and perpetuate.

(I was also surprised by friends and family today as I entered the building…and I thank my colleagues, mostly who are in absentia—two are here, but together they carry me and buoy me up. Because sometimes in this work, when you stand up for what you believe in, you are also spending some of your likeability and your social currency. And they help me go on, so thank you.)

So…what is the work? What is this legacy? I am here to tell you that it can longer go without saying that it’s through the Humanities that we define ourselves. This must be said and resaid, persistently. We have to affirm that it is, in fact, through the Humanities that we narrate, celebrate and sometimes commiserate our individual and collective journeys. It’s how we express our struggle with the mysteries inside us and the mysteries outside of us all. Our stories, our poetry, our music, our theater, our film, our paintings, our dances, and all of our artifacts remind us of where we came from; where we got lost; where we stumbled. They also point to where we are destined to go, because of our yearnings or due to the choices that we’ve already made. The Humanities make up our playbook.

But we also have this double-edged sword that we are here exploring of technology and the Humanities.

We might be reminded in one of our pre-readings for the conference that “Technology is a marvel because it can manipulate our sense of time and shrink the distance between physical spaces.” The railroad, the car, the jet. And yes, this is true and amazing and praiseworthy and it’s convenient, too. And it does, technically and physically bring us together.

YET, even though we benefit from the collective social progress that each generation has provided, the closing of the distance between the respective hearts and minds of two people—as opposed to geographical places—is a task that must be carefully negotiated anew with every fresh interpersonal encounter.

And closing that gap is not the business of machines and not accomplished with great dispatch. Transcending such a distance is about patience, and presence, and wisdom, empathy, and sometimes etiquette; mindfulness, careful communication, curiosity and sharing, intuition. These qualities are cultivated through the Humanities. We are neglecting and devaluing these skills…again…as paraphrased from our pre-reading for the conference: “We may have sacrificed the near to gain the far”

I am also here to assert to you that we have become complicit in a false dichotomy. We have been influenced to believe that some endeavors are more important than others, more worthy of funding and attention. We’ve been seduced by this propaganda and have capitulated and retreated to the margins. Science, technology, engineering and math—by themselves—are no panacea for the future. Yet I am not prepared to take my precious words, art and music and shiver in the darkness. It’s time, however, to reject the ridiculous and artificial rivalry between the Sciences and the Humanities. They must co-exist and co-evolve (to borrow an expression from yesterday’s “Dystopian Fiction” break-out session.) Science is essential and promising, but whether its products become toys, tools or weapons will be debated, framed, litigated and mitigated by the Humanities.

As we move toward having more of a sense of being global citizens, that is to say that YOU and ME and OTHERS, which equal “WE,”—a planetary “we,” be it Burlington, or Bagdad or Brussels; Chittenden, China, or Chad—we must apply every skill from every domain to address the issues that we face. There is no room for territorial skirmishes.

One of the activities that my colleagues and I have done with students, to demonstrate this need for a parity of skills and to help them to learn how to facilitate difficult conversations, is to ask them to consider, just for a minute, which of the following problems they would tackle if they only could choose one (and you can imagine it for yourselves as well). Consider: education for all, climate change, extreme poverty or peacekeeping. So they think about it for a minute (complain) and go to their corners and talk to their like-minded occupants and then report out.

It’s a forced choice…they don’t like it at first, but they ratify their decisions and have good explanations for their positions.

So, climate change: they say, “if we don’t tackle this, the planet will no longer be able to sustain life as we know it…and nothing else will matter.” Very compelling.

Education: “without education we have no innovations; we won’t be able to tackle these problems.” (Particularly if you are excluding half of the population–women…)

Extreme poverty: “if people have to worry about food and shelter everyday needs…how can they think about tomorrow? Long range plans or sacrifices? Protecting the environment? How will we educate them?”

“Without peace we have no large scale cooperation or hope of compliance.”

It’s messy and complex and it’s interconnected.

And if we are going to address these and other global issues, such as human migration, infectious diseases, intellectual property, aging populations…e-commerce, environmental degradation (only a few of the topics that we handle at our Global Issues Network Conference. I would be remiss if I didn’t put in a personal plug…)

…we need inventions, new medicines, we need distributions solutions, logistics, strategies, prediction models, simulations, experiments, prototypes, bio-engineering, computer science, and chemistry, and physics and biology…of course. But we also need the Rule of Law, good communicators in all world languages and a sense of our history (and we need a whole lot more her-story in our history).We need to communicate and to understand, to explain and to persuade people to engage in these innovations and to know where we can even leverage a conversation. And we need civil dialog—which is hard to come by these days—so that we can listen and learn and so that we can be heard. We need the Arts to inspire and provoke and compel people to change. We have to appeal to their heads, and we have to appeal to their hearts.

Now I haven’t done a random, double-blind pool of sampling in my microcosm of my classrooms. But, it seems to me that the students who appreciate the Humanities coincidentally are the ones who can persist and focus, design cohesive arguments, analyze and synthesize, and acknowledge and integrate multiple perspectives. Some of the others, who don’t have a respect or appreciation or perhaps an exposure to the Humanities, have trouble regulating their own behavior. They don’t recognize other perspectives beyond their own. And they have little tolerance for frustration, and they are distracted and distracting in learning environments. I believe that a good dose of Humanities would be the antidote for this.

So are you convinced yet? Are you with me? (You are my people!) I hope so…

So I invite you to join me in a couple of missions. First, use your voice and your influence, unapologetically, to reclaim the importance of the Humanities wherever and whenever you have a chance. Don’t be by-standers. It is counter-productive to lament how impoverished our status has become, or to spitefully hang back and say “I told you so.” It’s time to rehabilitate the Humanities’ reputation.

Next: get out of your comfort zones. As guardians of the Humanities, reach across your hemispheres, reach across the school, reach across the community and make peace and make friends with science and technology.  Let us not be merely curators of cultural treasures, let us also be crusaders, in the best sense of that word. Because, if we are meant to thrive or perhaps even just survive, our future depends on it.

Thank you.