Humanities Education and a Life of Good Will

Education in the humanities is under siege again . . . or still.  In a period of joblessness, training people in the barely lucrative fields of art, music, literature, language, social and cultural history may seem like an indulgence, as Florida’s governor Rick Scott recently proclaimed and as Mitt Romney apparently believes, having said he might eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  It wasn’t always so.  During the Cold War, the U.S. government promoted humanities education and cultural exchanges to help secure Western democracy against incursions of Soviet-style communism.  My graduate education in Scandinavian languages and literatures at the University of Chicago was financed by a National Defense Foreign Language Fellowship, instituted by Congress to foster the study of “critical” languages and cultures.  I never faced off with a Soviet agent, but I did become fluent in Swedish and pretty well-versed in Scandinavian literature, culture, and history.  I published a couple of books on Swedish women writers and taught for seven years in a one-year renewable (non-tenure track) position, but beyond that found little practical–i.e. remunerative–use for my degrees.  Nevertheless, I will never regret learning to see a “language area” whole–to see how a certain population’s artistic and spiritual expression relate to its material situation, its history, its landscape, and how all these factors shape the language with which it perceives and describes everything. My education in Scandinavian studies has given me a template for understanding other cultures, other places, other times.

I believe that our current political polarization and the uncivil behavior it breeds betray an inability to think contextually.  The humanities teach us to see relationships among, for example, material circumstances and values and behavior. We come to understand why other people are not always like us and to regard them on their own terms, instead of judging them against ours. Rather than dismiss them as alien or “real differ’nt,” as we might say in Minnesota, we come to appreciate their art and music and literature as a turning of the kaleidoscope, a shifting of vision that helps us see splendor we would otherwise miss.

My formal education in the humanities–designated as such–began in my junior year of high school in Albert Lea, Minnesota.  A two-year interdisciplinary program, Hum I and Hum II, offered a new vision of our national heritage and taught us to apply that broader vision to the rest of the world.  Wallace Kennedy taught us American literature, drama, and art.  Nicholas Cords taught us U.S. history and American music.  In our senior year Orville Gilmore introduced us to “Western civilization”–literature, philosophy, art, and architecture beginning with Ancient Greece. An unusual number of us Hum graduates ended up working in the arts and humanities, and the program itself became a model for humanities in secondary education across the country.  Yes, Albert Lea, Minnesota, a blue-collar town in the Midwestern cornbelt, was a humanities hotbed.

While I was composing this blog, sad news arrived of the death the day before Thanksgiving of one of my favorite high school classmates, Bill Yost, whose life itself is an argument for humanities education.  Bill, like me, had a dad employed at Wilson’s meatpacking plant.  His mom, like mine, worked to supplement the family income, despite the reigning “feminine mystique.”  Mine was a salesclerk; his operated a beauty salon in the family home. Our ancestors had farmed in the same township and fared poorly in the Depression. We knew each other from the First Lutheran church nursery on, but didn’t talk all that much, being of different genders.  It was only in our middle age that Bill and I turned our pleasant co-existence into friendship, when we discovered how appreciative we both were of our working-class upbringings and our public education.

Bill didn’t take the humanities class.  I’m not sure why, but seem to remember him telling me that he didn’t know he was capable of it.  But he did enroll in a summer school English class taught by Wally Kennedy.  That class transformed his life; I’m certain he told me that.  It awakened and validated his artistic creativity and geared him up for a lifelong vocation in the humanities.  For thirty years, Bill Yost served as the Cultural Arts Director of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  He brought plays and concerts and dance performances to the Eisenhower Hall Theater, set up art exhibits, and taught elective classes in the humanities and fine arts to our nation’s budding military officers.  I like to think that Bill enlarged the context in which they view both allies and the people identified in wartime as the enemy.

As an arts administrator in a nationally visible post, working in proximity to New York City, Bill had access to high-art circles, but kept his humility.  Among wealthy people with privileged private school educations, he reminded himself that he went to “the Albert Lea School on the park in midtown.”  When Wegener’s disease caused neuropathy in his legs, he walked with a cane or two from an assortment he bought at yard sales and painted in “a decorative and sometimes alarming fashion.”  He used his canes on visits to the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, then joked that he had shown his work there.

Even as illness sapped his strength and “the Reaper nipped at [his] heels,” Bill kept living his vocation.  He painted every day, and sculpted as well.  His mixed media Doppelgänger portraits are my favorites, especially “Verna Under the Dryer” and “Saturday Night Special,” which hark back to his mom’s work.  Three weeks before his death, Bill opened a solo exhibit of his art called “Face to Face: Assemblages” in the campus gallery at SUNY Orange/ Newburgh. It is scheduled to remain up through December 16.

In addition to his daily commitment to painting, Bill read one new poem a day, a habit he picked up from comedian Red Skelton. There was a story behind that, one that he would rather tell me in person, he said–a story I will now have to do without.  His excitement about poetry was palpable, even via email.  He wrote me to share the joy the day that Philip Levine, “one of ours,” was named Poet Laureate, and he was moved by a reading he arranged earlier this year for W.S. Merwin in an intimate conference room at the Storm King Art Center, where he volunteered as a docent and walked almost daily. Another source of excitement was his volunteer advisory work on the restoration of the Ritz Theater in Newburgh, NY.

Aside from his own artistic production, his knowledge of the humanities, his acquaintance with many accomplished artists, his commitment to making the arts accessible in his local community, his enthusiasm for his students’ creative endeavors, the most important quality that his humanities education instilled in Bill Yost is good will.  I never knew him to disparage anyone or turn his quick and quirky wit into sarcasm.  He saw people and their creative expression in a broad context, on their own terms, and sought to understand them. That, in the end, is what matters most about a humanities education.

(Read the New York Times obituary. A celebration of Bill’s life will be held on Saturday, December 10, at 1:00 p.m. at the Class of 1929 Art Gallery in the Eisenhower Hall Theatre at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.)


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