New Council board member Dr. Touba Ghadessi of Wheaton College spoke about what drew her to Rhode Island and the value of the humanities here at a recent Humanities Happy Hour hosted by fellow board members Lauren K. Drury and Kyle Zambarano and sponsored by Adler Pollock & Sheehan. Read her remarks below.
Five years ago, I moved to Providence. I work in Massachusetts, but I fell in love with this city: its history, its urban landscape, its food, its people, and its stories. Soon after moving (and continuing to this day!) I had visitors come in from Chicago, from Dubai, from Geneva, and from Paris. Every time they came, I happily played tourist guide and took them all over the city and to parts of the state I was discovering along with them, or happily re-visiting. They loved every single part of it. Paris was like a provincial village with no culture compared to us!
One of the things that fascinated me about this place – and I’m sure was part of the attraction for my friends – was the passion I saw in so many different ways. Whether it was a chef discussing culinary innovations, a librarian singing the praises of H.P. Lovecraft, or a photographer showcasing his work on sustainable architecture, all of them told their stories. These stories ultimately transcended stories about themselves and became stories about Providence and about Rhode Island, about all of us who have a connection to this place. I believe that stories matter. I believe that stories construct culture and that culture is what allows us to be fully human, to interact with each other, to preserve memories, and to move forward in engaged and productive ways, regardless of our interests and hopefully our passions.
Increasingly, this part of my personal life meshed with my professional life, as an educator and an administrator strongly attached to the importance of the humanities.
This is where the humanities come into play. The humanities are not an auxiliary field of study or a remote disciplinary area. The humanities are the framework and the support for all these stories. The humanities are inherent to all that we do and they propel us forward because they give us a better understanding of ANYTHING we wish to pursue, from engineering, to medicine, to law, and to astronomy.
For instance, a long long time ago, the highest honor was to be hired as a court philosopher. That’s what Galileo was, a court philosopher. And he did pretty amazing things that, I would argue, changed the way we think about our planet and beyond. To him and to his peers, knowing the universe was part of a much larger theological, philosophical, political, and civic discourse, one that was moving the world ahead: the humanities were indissociable from astronomy.
Only recently has the larger discourse on the humanities emphasized its separation from more “practical” disciplines. But it isn’t so. And the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities is here to remind us that it isn’t so, to show us how the humanities are still central to “the daily lives of a free and diverse people.” The Council supports projects that demonstrate how important innovation is, how essential culture is for the advancement of any society, how we are all better people because we acknowledge and support the need for public history or literature or our veterans’ stories. From documentary films that have won Emmys to projects that deal with racial integration, and from art-based educations programs to works that highlight the economic effect of mills on architectural structures, the Council has allowed Rhode Islanders to learn about their history, and to be proud of who they are and to visualize who they wish to become.
My father was an engineer who worked in oil fields, who became a successful businessman, and who had a strong political career. He also wrote poetry. To him, one couldn’t be a successful engineer without being fully invested in promoting the humanities. And he firmly believed that the reason he had a great political career was because he knew history and he knew about civic engagement. And he knew how to speak, how to write, and how to construct a convincing argument!
Obviously, I think he’s right. I think Galileo was right. And I think the mission of the Rhode Island Council of the Humanities is right: by supporting individuals and organizations that “seed, support, and strengthen public history, cultural heritage, civic education, and community engagement,” the Council makes our world a more intelligent, more colorful, more vibrant, and more generous world. And that benefits all of us, from the lawyer to the poet, and from the computer engineer to the jewelry maker.
Beyond that data that demonstrates clearly how societies that invest in the arts and the humanities are overall much more successful economically, let’s agree that the humanities aren’t just something for the academics to defend or are just a superficial interest. The humanities are what we are. They are all of our stories, our collective imaginary, our memories, our creativity, our concrete projects for a better society. And we can’t afford to not support the humanities because we can’t afford to not be the best versions of ourselves. It’s that simple.