The Value of the Humanities

I was asked recently to make an argument for the value of the humanities, a challenge given the amount of ink already spilt on the subject. Some authors frame it in positive terms, articulating the usefulness of the field. Others bemoan its perceived state of crisis. I would like to avoid whining about why no one appreciates us humanists anymore and focus on the positive. For me, the value of the humanities lies in the space they give us for reflection on the human condition.

Being Human

This is part of a larger question: what does it mean to be human? Anytime I visit a new city I make a point of visiting bookstores, particularly used bookstores. On a trip to Kansas City about a month ago I picked up a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone. It comprises a series of vignettes, short prose-poems, on subjects from across world history. One of my favorites is titled “Only Human”:

  Darwin told us we are cousins of the apes, not the angels. Later on, we learned we emerged from Africa’s jungle and that no stork ever carried us from Paris. And not long ago we discovered that our genes are almost identical to those of mice.
  Now we can’t tell if we are God’s masterpiece or the devil’s bad joke.   We puny humans:
  exterminators of everything,
  hunters of our own,
  creators of the atom bomb, the hydrogen bomb, and the neutron bomb, which is the healthiest of all bombs since it vaporizes people and leaves objects intact,
  we, the only animals who invent machines,
  the only ones who live at the service of the machines they invent,
  the only ones who devour their own home,
  the only ones who poison the water they drink and the earth that feeds them,
  the only ones capable of renting or selling themselves, or renting or
  selling their fellow humans,
  the only ones who kill for fun,
  the only ones who torture,
  the only ones who rape.
  And also
  the only ones who laugh,
  the only ones who daydream,
  the ones who make silk from the spit of a worm,
  the ones who find beauty in rubbish,
  the ones who discover colors beyond the rainbow,
  the ones who furnish the voices of the world with new music,
  and who create words so that
  neither reality nor memory will be mute.[1]

Humans are capable of expressing both extraordinary cruelty and extraordinary beauty. The humanities seek to make sense of that through culture. But it is not only an academic endeavor. It is about finding meaning in our existence.

That act is not limited to the present, nor to a single place. Galeano’s book turns western history on its head, juxtaposing world religions, philosophies, and scientific discoveries. Confronted with these “stories of almost everyone” – like hand stencils in cave paintings – we cannot escape a sense of shared humanity, no matter the distance across space or time.

Cueva de las Manos [Cave of Hands], Argentina (image by Mariano, Wikimedia Commons)


The humanities teach us about being people. They provide context for our lives and societies. History forms a key part of this (though as a historian no doubt I’m biased in this regard). I would like to illustrate it with an example relevant to contemporary discourse: immigration.

Across American history, nativists have targeted different groups of immigrants with the same types of rhetoric. In the 1750s, Benjamin Franklin complained about Germanic peoples and their failure to assimilate to Anglo-American life. From the 1840s fears were directed towards Irish Catholics, the poor huddled masses fleeing famine who, by virtue of their poverty and religion were seen as unintelligent and disloyal.

Thomas Nast, “The American River Ganges”, Harper’s Weekly, 1871. Note the alligator archbishops emerging from the water and the children in fear of being eaten by them. In the background stands a building resembling St. Peter’s Basilica, except it is labeled Tammany Hall and on it flies a flag with an Irish harp. In the back right is a noose, a reference to racial violence in the lynching of African-Americans. A school in the center is in a state of disrepair with an American flag hanging upside down.

In the late nineteenth century the Chinese became the first racial or ethnic group specifically excluded by legislation, while more expansive restrictions in the early twentieth century focused on reducing immigration from eastern and southern Europe. War compounded anti-Asian sentiments and in the 1940s Japanese Americans were rounded up into camps (in the interests of national security, of course) despite no evidence of espionage. More recently the same types of rhetoric have been turned on Mexicans and Muslims.

Dr. Seuss, “Waiting for the Signal from Home…”, PM, Feb. 13, 1942. These racialized caricatures of Japanese Americans being given TNT are typical of their time, little though we want to think that the author of beloved children’s books could be responsible for holding these views (Dr. Seuss Went to War, UC San Diego Library).

The continuity across these examples is their basis in fear: fear of otherness (whether racial, ethnic, or ideological) and fear of people whose locus of loyalty might lie elsewhere.[2] The question of what it means to be American – and, therefore, who qualifies and who decides – is older than the nation itself. In all cases, Americans who are themselves descendants of immigrants are also those arguing against immigration, forgetting or denying the experiences of their own ancestors. This reflects the final lines of the Galeano passage above: we must know this history so that “neither reality nor memory will be mute”. My point here is not about knowing the facts of history, but in recognizing that everything has a history and history itself is contested, subject to both deliberate remembering and forgetting in the service of the present.

Joseph Keppler, “Looking Backward: They would close to the new-comer the bridge that carried them and their fathers over”, Puck, Jan. 11, 1893 (Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library).


The question then becomes, how do we educate people so that they develop reflective and critical perspectives on our society? Many articles advocating for the humanities in education make utilitarian arguments. They inundate readers with data about the employment or salaries of graduates with humanities degrees or lists of skills they may have learned, whether information literacy, writing, critical thinking, creativity, or empathy.

Without denying the importance of ‘transferable skills’ and the reasons for an evidence-based approach to humanities advocacy, economic arguments alone will not save the day. They form part of a general trend towards neoliberalism in education, particularly higher education, which sees students as consumers. Any aspect of the experience that lacks an obvious connection to a job is called into question.

However, if we understand education in the broadest sense as concerning more than a defined set of knowledge or marketable skills, then the humanities are valuable because they give us perspective. They contribute to an informed, democratic society. In the words of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, “they liberate us from the myopia our media culture and politics impose on us”.[3] This can occur only when we have “the intellectual space to grapple with questions of enduring importance”:[4] questions of why the world is the way it is. As such, the value of the humanities extends beyond school. Education at every level should create learners who can participate in society in an informed way, whether through reading poetry or debating current events.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, c.1818 (Wikimedia Commons)

Around 1818 Caspar David Friedrich painted one of the quintessential images of European romanticism: The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Using it as a metaphor, science (or the enlightenment rationality of the eighteenth century) might lead the wanderer to ask what lies under the fog, why the landscape takes a particular shape, what flora and fauna inhabit it, and what sort of particles hold it all together. Science, at its best, complements the humanities.[5] But if the wanderer is a humanist, then he might ask: what is his place in this landscape and why does it matter? Through the humanities we ask why, despite the short time we spend on this earth – less than the blink of an eye for the universe – we still need it to mean something.

The humanities remind us of our common bonds and give us the space to question their complexity. An education in the humanities is not a sugar-coating of idealism, but the realization that context matters, history stays with us, and there are no easy solutions. Despite 200,000 years of modern human life, we are still trying to figure it all out. No currency can measure the enduring value of that endeavor.


[1] Eduardo Galeano, Mirrors: Stories of almost Everyone, translated by Mark Fried (Portobello Books, London, 2009), pp.227-8.

[2] For more detail, listen to: The BackStory, “On the Outs: Restricting American Immigration” [radio/podcast], Feb. 10, 2017.

[3] Ken Burns, NEH Jefferson Lecture, 2016.

[4] L.D. Burnett, “Holding on to What Makes Us Human: Defending the Humanities in a Skills-Obsessed University,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Aug. 7, 2016

[5] Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton University Press, 2010), p.8.


Remembering Japanese-American Internment

On February 19, 1942 – two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor – President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. It authorized the establishment of military areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded” in the interest of national security and defense.[1] In broad terms, it gave the military power to decide who constituted a threat. It did not, as many discussions of it imply, specifically mention Japanese Americans. That fact does not make it any less pernicious.

General DeWitt of the Western Defense Command was convinced that the entire Japanese-American population posed a threat to the nation. Between March and August of 1942 he authorized a series of “exclusion orders” that applied to “all persons of Japanese ancestry”.[2] Authorities removed approximately 110,000 men, women, children, of whom about two-thirds were American citizens, from their homes on the west coast. Without any attempt at due process, they were ordered to store or dispose of their property, herded into groups at assembly centers, given numbered tags, and sent on buses or trains patrolled by armed guards to unknown destinations. The ten internment camps, known euphemistically as “war relocation centers,” were all in desolate, distant locations. Those closest to the coast were more heavily militarized, surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers. As one man recalled:

We were told that we are being evacuated so that the government can protect us. The first thing that I had observed was that they had armaments, not facing out, but facing in.[3]

Clem Albers, military police at Manzanar, April 1942 (National Park Service)

Clem Albers, military police at Manzanar, April 1942 (National Park Service)

No evidence supported the perceived threat. Rather, its origins lay in racism and fear. Adding the two and throwing government propaganda into the mix meant the policy enjoyed widespread support. Both the press and Congress almost unanimously endorsed it. Groups supposedly committed to ending discrimination either supported the policy or looked on in silence as the “gravest violation in civil liberties since the end of slavery” took place.[4]

Many understand the historical lesson of Japanese-American internment, like that of the Holocaust, to be “never again”. But there is another important lesson. It could happen again. Fear is part of human nature and those in power have repeatedly harnessed it against the ‘others’ in society. The record of internment should stand today not as a monument to a past from which we may safely distance ourselves, but as a reminder of what is possible and what we should do all in our power to resist.

Manzanar National Historic Site, January 2016 (photo by Sara Goek)

Manzanar National Historic Site, January 2016 (photo by Sara Goek)

Cemetery monument at Manzanar, created by Ryozo Kado and erected in August 1943 (photo by Sara Goek, Jan. 2016)

Cemetery monument at Manzanar, created by stonemason Ryozo Kado and erected in August 1943 (photo by Sara Goek, Jan. 2016)

[1] Executive Order 9066, February 19, 1942. Full text available from:

[2] Civilian Exclusion Order, San Francisco, California, May 15, 1942.

[3] Remembering Manzanar, documentary film (National Park Service, 2004).

[4] Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), p.241.

Danny Meehan

Danny Meehan outside his restored family home in Donegal, June 2012. Photograph by Sara Goek.

Danny Meehan outside his restored family home in Donegal, June 2012. Photograph by Sara Goek.

Fiddler Danny Meehan was born in 1940 and grew up in Drimalost, in the Blue Stack Mountains of south Donegal, in a family and local area with a rich musical heritage. At age sixteen he migrated first to Selby in Yorkshire. He worked in many places across Britain, finally settling in London in 1963 where he established a career as a self-employed stonemason. He also met and played with many great musicians in pubs, folk clubs, and concert halls in London. He appears on the album Paddy in the Smoke, with the group Le Chéile, and has two solo albums. He returned to live in Donegal in 2007. In 2012 TG4 honored him with the Gradam Saoil (Lifetime Achievement Award).

However, that biography doesn’t do him justice. He is a larger than life character – humorous, generous, self-effacing, and, as he says himself, still a bit wild. Those traits come through in his music as well – his clever variations on traditional tunes, his unwillingness to put his own name to original compositions, and, having lived through what he calls a “dark age” for music, an appreciation for the young musicians of today. His is a music shaped by his roots in Donegal, his 50 years in England, and the many musicians he heard and played with along the way.

Out of curiosity, during the interview I asked Danny about his grandparents, because I’d read that his grandfather migrated to Pennsylvania in the late nineteenth century and returned to marry and settle down in Donegal. Danny’s response became the focus of an article, “‘Most Good Stories Are True, You Know’: History, Tradition, and Identity in a Family Story” in The Irish Review (vol. 53, 2016). In conjunction with that article, I have put my full oral history interview with Danny Meehan and recordings of his music on my PhD project website, Voices of Irish Music & Migration. The specific audio clips referenced in the article are also available from The Irish Review‘s website.

Huge thanks, of course, to Danny for sharing his stories and music. Thanks to Aidan O’Donnell for initially helping me get in touch with him. Danny’s nephew John Daly kindly provided additional information on the Meehan family history and the family photographs. Thanks to Clare O’Halloran and The Irish Review for supporting the publication.

“No war is easy for those who fight it”

In war, “you don’t become a killer. No normal man who has smelled and associated with death ever wants to see any more of it,” wrote cartoonist Bill Mauldin (1921-2003) in his book Up Front: “The surest way to become a pacifist is to join the infantry.”[1] His cartoons contained few feats of heroism. Instead, his central characters Willie and Joe griped about the weather, the rations, and their superiors.

Stars and Stripes, March 2, 1944. Source: Military History Now.

Mauldin observed,

I don’t make the infantryman look noble, because he couldn’t look noble even if he tried. Still there is a certain nobility and dignity in combat soldiers and medical aid men with dirt in their ears. They are rough and their language gets coarse because they live a life stripped of convention and niceties. Their nobility and dignity come from the way they live unselfishly and risk their lives to help each other. They are normal people who have been put where they are, and whose actions and feelings have been molded by their circumstances.[2]

Like war correspondent Ernie Pyle, Mauldin gave GIs on the front in World War II both their dignity and a recognizable image of themselves. His cartoons balanced realism and respect for the combat soldier with humor and a healthy dose of cynicism. Pyle himself played an important role in bringing Mauldin’s work to a wider audience. In January 1944 he wrote, “Mauldin’s cartoons aren’t about training-camp life, which you at home are best acquainted with. They are about the men in the line – the tiny percentage of our vast army who are actually up there in that other world doing the dying. His cartoons are about the war.”[3] As a result of this coverage, his series Up Front was syndicated in papers across the nation.[4]

My great-grandfather's collection of Mauldin cartoons

I first encountered Mauldin’s work in that form. When my mom moved to a new house a couple years ago, among the boxes we discovered one that her parents had kept for her when they moved decades earlier. It contained an old cigar box labeled “Bill Mauldin Cartoons (Collected by W.G.M.)” with over 200 newspaper clippings that my great-grandfather had cut from The Cleveland Press during the war and its aftermath. I don’t know why he kept them. His son, my great-uncle, had fought in the Italian campaign (as did Mauldin), so perhaps that connection had something to do with it. Or perhaps, like so many other Americans, he saw in them something of the realities of a war taking place thousands of miles away.

These drawings are not part of military history as we often conceive it – of generals, battles, strategies, weaponry, or even ideology. Rather, Mauldin’s work is part of the social history of wars – of what it felt like to be there – perhaps something those who have not experienced can never truly understand. Despite all his attempts to explain the lived reality of war through both words and drawings, Mauldin reflected, “I guess you have to go through it to understand its horror. You can’t understand it by reading magazines or newspapers or by looking at pictures or by going to newsreels. You have to smell it and feel it all around you until you can’t imagine what it used to be like when you walked on a sidewalk or tossed clubs up into horse chestnut trees or fished for perch or when you did anything at all without a pack, a rifle, and a bunch of grenades.”[5]

United Feature Syndicate, Aug. 8, 1945. Source: Library of Congress.

The perceived distance from ordinary life and the lack of understanding among ordinary people for the horrors of war may have contributed to Mauldin’s disillusionment upon returning home. Like many other veterans, he and his characters, Willie and Joe, struggled to fit back into civilian life. In their final appearance, they are “under a culvert” living “on the bum,” “totally out of luck, out of money”.[6] Despite his own troubles, Mauldin himself never stopped standing up for the Willies and Joes of the world and the respect and fair treatment they deserved.

Title quote from: Bill Mauldin, Up Front (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1945), p.202.

[1] Mauldin, Up Front, p.14

[2] Mauldin, Up Front, pp.14-15

[3] Ernie Pyle, “Bill Mauldin, Cartoonist”, Jan. 15, 1944:

[4] Todd DePastino, Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), pp.126-9.

[5] Mauldin, Up Front, p.130

[6] Bill Mauldin in a 1983 interview, in Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984), p.360.

The Transnational Life of Kevin Henry

Kevin Henry at a festival in 1999 (photo courtesy of the Henry family).

Kevin Henry at a festival in 1999 (photo courtesy of the Henry family).

Before I met Kevin Henry in April 2013 what I knew about him primarily rested on his reputation as a musician and raconteur. He comes from the same area on the Sligo-Mayo border as Roger Sherlock and Brendan Tonra, both of whom I’d interviewed and Brendan I had the pleasure of playing tunes with during my time in Boston. I knew also that Kevin had been a mainstay of the Chicago Irish music scene for decades. What I was unprepared for was the fascinating story of his circuitous journey from Ireland to Chicago and the aplomb with which he related it.

Kevin was born in 1929, the eighth of eleven children. Following in the footsteps of his older siblings, he left Ireland for England in 1947. He traveled up and down the country working as a seasonal agricultural laborer, coal miner, and construction worker. In 1953 he decided to seek his fortune across the Atlantic and booked passage to Canada, though his ultimate goal was America. He worked his way from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Toronto and finally across the border to New York, where other siblings lived. There, he worked digging tunnels and waiting tables before deciding to head for Florida’s sunnier climes. Unimpressed with the low wages paid laying pipes in the Everglades or working on the construction of a hotel, he moved north again, this time to Chicago. Apart from a four-month stint mining copper in Butte, Montana, he has remained in Chicago ever since. He spent 37 years as an iron worker, a career that included work on the iconic Hancock Tower. Throughout his life traditional music has remained a touchstone for his identity. Now 87, Kevin continues to work to sustain the culture of his native land and the legacy of music collector Francis O’Neill in his adopted home.

Kevin’s life and the myriad ways he remained connected to his Irish identity are the subject of a new article published in the Transnational Ireland special issue of Éire-Ireland (vol.51, 2016): “‘Looking for that Pot of Gold’: The Transnational Life of Kevin Henry”.

In conjunction with that article, I have put my oral history interview with Kevin Henry, photographs, and recordings of his music on my PhD project website Voices of Irish Music & Migration. More material will be coming soon – stay tuned!

A huge thank you to Kevin and his wife Pauline for sharing their time and their stories with me! 

Defining Freedom

Last semester I co-taught a class on American history since the Civil War. Throughout we emphasized a central theme: the changing meanings of freedom. In a prelude to the lectures on the Great Depression, we asked the class (mostly first-year Irish students, with a smattering of visiting international students) to take a few minutes to write individual responses to two prompts:

  1. Define freedom.
  2. Can meaningful freedom exist in a situation of extreme inequality?

Their varied answers gave me a lot to think about, particularly in comparing current political perspectives and goals in the US versus Europe.

The definitions of freedom fell along a spectrum from what I think of as individual to social freedom. In that roughly order and in condensed form, they included:

  • The right to live on your own terms
  • Ability to do completely as you like with no repercussions / limitations
  • Ability to do as you like within the limits of the law / reason (as long as that law is democratically established)
  • Ability to choose how to live, act, and speak without oppression, discrimination, or fear
  • Ability to achieve a fulfilled life, in which all basic needs are met and personal progress can be attained
  • Ability to do as you like and go where you please as long as you obey rules and laws that protect other people’s freedom
  • Democratic government and enfranchisement
  • Rights: vote, speak, practice any religion, safety, health, property, basic human rights
  • Equality: Ability to pursue opportunities (education, careers, wealth, property, government, etc.) regardless of race, gender, sexuality, faith, or culture

Somewhere between the individual and the social there is a shift from singular to plural; as the definitions move along the spectrum other people gradually begin to enter into the equation.

The shift became even more apparent in the responses to the second prompt. Not all the students gave an exact yes or no, but I categorized their answers for the chart below:


Even many of those choose yes or no also qualified their answers. On the no side, they argued that inequalities inhibit freedom, because not all members of the society have the same freedoms in practice. Many of those who said yes added that freedom might still have limitations when there are extreme inequalities. In between, they said it depends on the nature or extent of the inequalities or that some types freedoms may exist (e.g. freedom of speech), but not necessarily meaningful freedom overall.

This was not a comprehensive survey, but from discussions with students and friends (surveyed even more informally) I got a sense that if combined with demographic data on nationality, political views, or socio-economic background the results would be even more interesting. It strikes me that the ‘individual’ conception of freedom, and the idea that it therefore can exist even alongside inequalities, is more characteristically American. The European welfare state idea – and the government influence it involves, which many Americans are quite hostile to – is based more on the freedom-as-equal-opportunities definition. Each has emerged from a unique set of historical and social circumstances.

As ways of thinking, these ideas suffuse our national collective mentalities. They pervade our political discourse. In the United States I think it would take more than legislation to successfully adopt social programs such as public healthcare or free education: it would take a shift in mindset and a commitment to a broader definition of what it means to be free.

Thanks to Sarah Thelen for being an awesome co-teacher and for comments on a draft of this post!

Reflections on (Extra)Ordinary Lives

I confess, I am allergic to biographies of the famous and exceptional. My dad gave me some prime specimens when I was younger – the lives of Eleanor Roosevelt and Isabella Bird among others – and recently he even tried to interest me in new books about Abraham Lincoln. But I simply cannot finish one. Why? Some subjects perhaps seem anointed from the start, the products of circumstances far removed from the realities of my life and the lives of others around me. Others may have had the benefit of living in interesting times, but I never did finish Eric Hobsbawm’s autobiography either, as much as I like his historical work.

Yet I find myself drawn to read and write the lives of the ‘ordinary’ people, those whose experiences many judge unremarkable. Historian Richard White’s mother told him ‘half jokingly, but only half, that her life was more interesting than my latest book. Why didn’t I write a book about her? I told her, not joking at all, that I would.’[1] The result is my favorite history book, Remembering Ahanagran. Its subject, Sara Walsh, would have remained anonymous outside her immediate circle of friends and family had her son not become a distinguished historian and taken up her challenge. I take the book off the shelf repeatedly and never get bored. In the space between history and memory White reveals much about life, the ways we tell our stories, and how, through them, we come to understand ourselves.

As I worked on my Ph.D. I started a collection of memoirs by Irish migrants – Angeline Kearns Blain, Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, Anna May Mangan, Seán Ó Ciaráin, any many more – picking up stories from the boxes and shelves of secondhand booksellers. If history remembers their names it is because they took up the pen. Many who did not still have stories to tell. As an oral historian, that realization motivates my work. Some of those I’ve interviewed are household names (at least in traditional music households); others are not, but that does not make their words or memories any less meaningful. Their stories have taught me about the human experience: what it means to be a migrant, why people hold onto their cultures, and what it felt like to live in the foreign country that was the past. In biographies of the famous, perhaps some of those fundamentals get lost amidst the action.


[1] Richard White, Remembering Ahanagran: Storytelling in a Family’s Past (Hill and Wang, New York, 1998), p.4.