Seth Bruggeman on the Humanities


If you are part of a college or university thinking about how to “do”public humanities you should look no further than what Aaron Cowan and Lia Paradis have put together at Slippery Rock University in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.  Cowan and Paradis run the Stone House Center for Public Humanities.  There are a lot of humanities centers and programs out there, but it is very cool that the folks at Slippery Rock have their own building. Needless to say,  I am jealous!  Learn more about the work of the Stone House Center here.

Over at the Stone House Center blog the staff has initiated a “Coffee & Questions” series. In the most recent post they interview Temple University public historian Seth Bruggeman.  Here is a taste of that interview:

What inspires you in your current position/role?

Extreme though it may sound, I consider myself to be in the business of training culture warriors.  It’s a notion that, for me, dates back to the summer of 1995 when I interned at the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Culture where, in many ways, my identify as a historian began to form.  It was there, for instance, that I learned to do oral history, in part by listening to and processing recordings made by some of the nation’s most renowned folklorists.  But at the same time that I was getting excited about oral history and the progressive commitments of the Archive and its staff, I was also strolling past the Smithsonian’s Air and Space museum each day, where protestors flocked that summer around the new Enola Gay exhibit.  And sometimes the other interns and I would spend lunch breaks watching congressional debate, which had become fevered amid the partisan rancor that would shut down the government just months later.  I began to realize then that what I valued most about the Archive and, really, about history and the humanities, was far more vulnerable to the whims of politicians and private interests than I had ever imagined.

Now, amid ongoing assaults against public and higher education, and with the collapse of public funding for cultural nonprofits and even for the National Park Service, I’ve made it a goal toprepare students to be advocates, not just for their own work, but for the ideas and institutions that give that work meaning…

Why do you believe that the humanities are important to everyone, and not just people in academia?

This question always makes me think of Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi’s wonderful essay, “Why We Need Things,” which posits that humans constantly gather stuff so as to create order within our otherwise disorganized and drifting minds.  We need things, because without some kind of external order, we lose ourselves.  I think that’s true, but I’d also suggest that the humanities strengthen our ability to organize our own minds apart from the constant noise Csikszenthmihalyi equates with consumer culture. 

Delving into the humanities shows us how to find beauty in surprising places, to see patterns across place and time, to be calm amid confusion.  The humanities make us self-reliant, but also help us learn to share ourselves with others.  They give us the confidence to confront a world wherein order of any kind is fleeting.

Read the entire interview here.