Project Humanities

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Dr. Neal Lester, Dean of Humanities for ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences talks about the launch of “Project Humanities”.

Ted Simons: ASU launches project humanities this week, and here to tell us what the event is all about is Dr. Neal Lester, dean of humanities for ASU's college of liberal arts and sciences. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. Neal Lester: Thank you for having me.

Ted Simons: Before we talk about what project humanities is supposed to do, what are the humanities? I got a feeling this is touching the elephant. Everybody has a different idea.

Dr. Neal Lester: That's the million dollar question. It's interesting, because one of the ways we've tried to approach project humanities is not by defining it but showing what humanities do or does. It's bringing people together to recognize there are more things that unite us than separate us. And it's all around ideas. And the ways in which we try to make meaning of our existence.

Ted Simons: So things like arts, literature, the classics, liberal arts in general. That's all encompassing there?

Dr. Neal Lester: It's all encompassing, but problem is when you start with definition, the definitions are by nature not static. And what's easier is to talk about what humanities does. The skills that you get from humanities. When you start talking about the arts, literature, the question becomes, how do you define literature? How did you define the arts? We say when you bring people together to recognize those human ties, we are doing humanities.

Ted Simons: Interesting. Give us an example. That's a good example. But give us -- how do you live an ethical life? How do you share your experiences?

Dr. Neal Lester: That's right. One of the things -- what are the things that make us look at what it means to be human on this planet and what that means exactly is, there's nothing bigger than life. So one of the ways that research in humanities and those who teach humanities and those who self identify as humanists, we try to analyze, we try to critique. We also try to understand and to ask questions. And by talking and listening, the ideas that we will connect, and recognize we do not exact as a single object on this planet. And that nothing is created for the sake of its creation. That on some level it needs to have some connection with that person who created it, or the purpose of its creation.

Ted Simons: How do you connect, though, with folks who don't want to be connected? And there's a lot of them out there.

Dr. Neal Leste: Part of what we try to do with project humanities is to say, this is about humanities every day and every day humanities. So no one exists in a vacuum. And the way in which we make meaning is to find ourselves relative to other people. So we do humanities even when we don't acknowledge what it is. And the same way that people do things before we're able to name it. So humanities actually becoming -- the coming together and acknowledging those common a little, we don't have to explain, for example, why we pray or why we write notes, at times of great loss. At the Tucson tragedy, for example, nobody was told how to behave, people responded because there was something that went beyond those things that divide us. What we're trying to look at are those in between spaces so we don't have to look for a 9-11 to make us realize that we are more alike than we are different.

Ed Simons: So why do I keep hearing that there's a chasm between humanities and science, between -- or a problem with humanities and politics? It seems like humanities is always having to fight, defend itself and figure out, trying to convince people we're not bad.

Dr. Neal Lester: And -- part of that is trying to educate and also trying to better understand what humanities are. And to move away from this sense that we have to go to a dictionary definition in order to understand what it is. So by coming together and bringing people who are not necessarily identified as human, we talk about those things we share, we talk about stories, we talk about empathy, we talk about language, traveling to other countries. Where you learn about the culture through learning the language. So it's not so academic, but it is academic. We have research that's around language that impacts how we interact and how we make meaning of everyday experiences.

Ted Simons: So with that, we have project humanities all set to go. What are we talking about?

Dr. Neal Lester: Project humanities is a year old this February, and it's really an ASU University-wide initiative that does exactly what we've tried to do in talking about humanities generally. Bring people across the campus, students, faculty, administrators, staff, together talking about an idea, thinking about an idea. Talking, listening, and connecting. And recognizing that those experiences are just as important as jobs that we have.

Ted Simons: Interesting. Last question before we let you go, humanities place in society. I'm sure it will be talked about project humanites, what is it?

Dr. Neal Lester: It's like air. It's like air. We don't know it's there until we start losing it. And when we start recognizing moments of loss, when we start recognizing good experiences that we have from reading a book, or seeing a play, or seeing a movie and wanting to talk to somebody about it, that becomes humanities in action.

Ted Simons: Very good. Dr. Lester, it's good to have you here. Thank you for joining us. Good luck with project humanities.

Dr. Neal Lester: Thank you very much.

Ted Simons: And that is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.
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Dr. Neal Lester:Dean, Humanities at ASU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences;

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