In the simplest sense, white papers are about finding solutions. Fortunately, there is nothing simple or predictable in the constellation of the academic disciplines that study human cultures and call themselves the Humanities. In the Middle Ages, the term contrasted with divinity and referred to what is now called classics, the main area of secular study in universities and centers of learning. That distinction is no longer primary, and the content of the Humanities has evolved in depth and scope. To even define its fields and subfields is an adventure in itself. A combination of this complexity, and a vague suspicion that skills placed under the Humanities umbrella are not going to get one far in life, has led to a hazardous condition, a new HDD: "Humanities Deficit Disorder." In acute cases, it leads to an inability to read and write, and an absence of plain old-fashioned enjoyment of primary sources or traditional arts such as memorization and recitation of poetry, reading philosophy, or practicing calligraphy. In all instances, it leaves almost no space for time-honored human practices that defy a speedy search for results and encourage in-depth learning and contemplation.
Fortunately, there is nothing simple or predictable in the constellation of the academic disciplines that study human cultures and call themselves the Humanities.
To successfully navigate the massive and multifaceted body of knowledge called the Humanities requires the ability to travel through porous disciplinary borders. Ultimately, history without literature, literature without history, art without science and technology, language learning without cultural literacy … are meaningless, as are all of the above without philosophy. And yet, the answers found along the way depend on the kinds of questions we ask and the intellectual geography that our queries build. So, let me explain the route that I will take to make my points. It starts in the neighbourhood of my childhood, introduces a personal note into our conversation, and according to my Iranian upbringing, it never fails. I will start by telling a story.
My father and I had our differences but were buddies when it came to poetry. We were both addicted to reading, writing, or discussing it. In addition to that, the songs on the radio were frequently based on classical poetry, and some of the games we played involved knowing a certain amount of poetry by heart. So, later in life, I wondered why the most vivid memories I have of my father, the kinds that have endured years and continents of separation, are not focused on poetry. Rather, they depict him perched on his cushion with a dozen bamboo calligraphy pens and a handful of inkpots arranged around him. In the memory, he would, with the aid of a small sharp knife, be trying to shave and shape the bamboo cuttings into pens (many years later, I noted that he called all small sharp knives qalam traraash, a pen-shaper.) Of course, he could easily purchase a ready-made bamboo pen, but there were stories about calligraphers who would not write with any pen other than those they had prepared themselves. Not only did the size of the pen’s tip and its slant matter, so did the special cut made in its middle to regulate the amount of ink it absorbed and carried to the paper. And so, much pride was attached to being the kind of calligrapher who crafts his own tool. In the memory, my father would dip the pen into the inkpot and then carefully slide its tip on the soft surface of the paper, giving out an almost screeching sound, sometimes interrupted with his own "ah!" of satisfaction when the ending loop of a letter, sin س or shin ش , had gone well. The successful efforts would be passed from hand to hand, enjoyed and admired by the entire family, whereas the failed examples would be destroyed before anybody set eyes on them (a matter of pride, again).
His deep devotion to the art, regular practice, full focus on creating his personal tools, and pride attached to the results were not the only gifts I received. With the practice came another skill, one that I appreciated at an older age: gems in the form of single verses of poetry. The most successful poet to select from was Sa’di of Shiraz (d. 1291), the cosmopolitan master of lyrics and ethics alike about whom I published a monograph in 2015 (Keshavarz 2015). No doubt, the homiletic nature of his work presented in a relatively accessible buoyant and humorous language was a reason for the appeal of his single verses to calligraphers:
If you recite the Qur’an with that lousy voice
You will shake the foundation of the Muslim faith!
Do whatever you can when you are able to
Before old age takes the strength from you
Another cautionary note:
Whatever you saw did not stay still
Do not think that it now or ever will
And even more candidly:
This beauty of your face my dear is worth nothing
Inner beauty is what matters if you can bring it (ibid., 98–99)
Naturally, it took years before I could access the deeper meanings of these verses, and even more time to realize that indeed Sa’di addressed these cautionary verses to a powerful ruler. But I was hooked already long before getting to that stage. These single, melodic, and accessible verses, making the most elegant shapes on a page of calligraphy, had opened up the treasure trove of Persian poetry to me. And much emerged: surprise, wisdom, entertainment, elegance, challenge, and more. What connects this childhood memory to our current conversation is that no high-tech crash course could have given me the kind of in-depth exposure to the material which led to this lasting impact. While I cannot simulate what happened in my childhood home in Shiraz of the 1960s, I constantly struggle to forge ways of enabling my students to see the significance of in-depth encounters with texts. And I would suggest that the key is a set of apparently contradictory concepts: patience and excitement.
The academic study of Persian literature frequently ignored the sense of wonder, humour, elegance, and the rebellious instinct that this literature had embraced.
When I entered the academic study of this literature, one of the first things I noticed was that we (in the Humanities) did not pitch them to the mainstream university student. Some of this marginalization, in the case of Persian, was related to US/Iran political conflicts. The need for learning a new language, which looked alien, played a role too. The rest could be explained relatively easily. The academic study of Persian literature frequently ignored the sense of wonder, humour, elegance, and the rebellious instinct that this literature had embraced. It focused, instead, on technical conventions that were understood to define the tradition. I myself quickly grew wary of some of the conventional approaches in Persian literary studies: artificial periodization, measuring authenticity versus debt to other traditions, looking for external influences, obsession with historical "facts," and the unending search for the pure unadulterated Persian tradition we seemed to have lost at some point. The field did not ask exciting questions such as, "What is a text?" "What different ways are there to read a text?" "How do we generate meaning?" "How does language change its referential role into a poetic one?" "How best use literature in the language classroom?" "How can I form other exciting questions?"
Before I knew it, I had attended an American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) training session, read comparative literature theory, ventured into cognitive poetics, and started reading and teaching theories of translation. Caught between a perspective focused on archaic interests and one compelled to focus on narrowly specialized knowledge, there was little choice but to retool oneself to be able to cross boarders to avoid imprisonment in a small corner. Perhaps I should emphasize that these measures did not signify a lack of respect for traditional approaches to studying literature. Neither did it underestimate the significance of the Humanities. Rather, it signalled a readiness to explore new territories, to enlarge the intellectual toolbox we routinely pass onto our students. In this exploration our specialties will not completely change, but they will be enriched with new and informed perspectives. As a result, it is important to ask: "Where is my new interdisciplinary venture taking me, and why?" Let me cite an example. I asked this question when, as a specialist in Persian poetry, I found myself increasingly interested in the mutual imbrications of poetry and spirituality. The exploration took me to the works of Robert Detweiler, among others. His notion of "imaginative struggle with language" opened new doors to the poetic space as a site for understanding and recreating the sacred (Detweiler 1978, 3). At the same time, I was interested in poetry as a means of connecting with everyday life to bring about meaningful change.
An important survival lesson (complete with its own dilemma) was that one can no longer stay effective and relevant in the classroom—or scholarship—without readiness to retool oneself.
An important survival lesson (complete with its own dilemma) was that one can no longer stay effective and relevant in the classroom—or scholarship—without readiness to retool oneself. And yet, the dilemma was how often can a single career lend itself to retooling and adding subareas of expertise? Where is the point at which the breadth is too wide for the depth to stay meaningful?
So today, my structural response to the need for resisting a rapidly compartmentalized (and compartmentalizing) notion of education is to build new strategies of weaving what one may call the "literary humanities" into the fabric of what is becoming a very reductive view of learning. Highly focused specialization, distance learning, fact-finding through technological literacy and the like, necessary as they are, must not lead to a notion of learning that considers anything other than hard facts as comforting fluff. Unless we educate the whole person (mind, body, and soul), the education that is offered will be woefully inadequate, resulting in compartmentalization.
What are some strategies for articulating the vital share that literary humanities can, and must, play in a holistic education? First, I teach my students that any good defense requires a healthy dose of attack. We have to be out there to be seen and heard: in the general as well as social media, in offices of high university administration, in development offices, at events that bring the parents to campus, and most of all, where the students are, the classroom.
So today, my structural response to the need for resisting a rapidly compartmentalized (and compartmentalizing) notion of education is to build new strategies of weaving what one may call the "literary humanities" into the fabric of what is becoming a very reductive view of learning.
Second, I do not shy away from demanding that my students look at emotional and aesthetic intelligence as a means of living a healthier and more balanced life. I tell them ancient artistic and literary masterpieces are more than our historical heritage. They are intellectual tools, a kind of inoculation against the HDD whose most acute symptom is the inability to pause, look closely, and ponder. Reading must not become a habitual search for "relevant facts." It must be an in-depth and deliberate journey through a complicated metropolis which involves embracing the give-and-take between ambiguity and understanding. For, more often than not, seeking questions is more important than finding answers.
Over time, my classroom experience with Persian mystical poetry has been far more than teaching the students new literary and mystical concepts. I use the material for a broad range of conceptual learning and growth, not always identical. Along the above lines, we explore a new and in-depth notion of time, an understanding that consequential learning often requires sustained engagement with the sources and often cannot be packaged into digital shortcuts. Toward the end of the semester, my business majors joke about "two weeks of Rumi for the healthy business person."
The Humanities are there to develop healthy activist minds through in-depth engagement with our humanistic heritage. Emotional and aesthetic intelligence should help us change what we have, for the better!
It is not all about literature either. In conversations in these classes, the students display the normal—and justified—reverence for modern science, but do not shy away from criticizing what we may call modern reductive materialism. Along the way, we go far beyond any single subject matter. We talk about learning as a way of looking outward: replacing insularity with engagement through connecting with other units on campus, moving the classroom into the community. (Active mystics such as Joan Chittister provide effective reading for such classes. See Chittister  in Suggested Readings.) We explore the fact that serious service learning with the community is not charity but co-creation. Transforming public spaces in our hallways into areas for learning and exchange is a constant goal, too. Besides that, we organize "open mikes, open minds" to spark uncomfortable conversations.
The ultimate message is as simple as it is complicated. The Humanities are there to develop healthy activist minds through in-depth engagement with our humanistic heritage. Emotional and aesthetic intelligence should help us change what we have, for the better!
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