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Humanity in the Humanities: In Search of Wisdom

Article Summary
I was reminded of this story told by Morrison when asked to write about the Humanities. What is the significance of this story? What do the old woman, the young people, and the bird symbolize?


By Assoc. Prof. Dr. Noritah Omar

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.”

Thus, began Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance lecture in 1993. 

The old, blind woman was met by a group of young people who wanted to test her wisdom and at the same time, wanted to portray her as a fraud.

“They stand before her, and one of them says, “Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is alive or dead.” She does not answer, and the question is repeated. “Is the bird I am holding living or dead?” She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone see what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.  Finally, she speaks and her voice soft but stern. “I don’t know”, she says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”

I was reminded of this story told by Morrison when asked to write about the Humanities.  What is the significance of this story? What do the old woman, the young people, and the bird symbolize?  To me, the wise, old woman symbolizes our humanity, while the young people represent our society.  The bird, which is in our hand, symbolizes the Humanities.

The old woman’s blindness is not a disability, but instead, it heightens her wisdom.  The blindness enables her to see beyond the tangible, to have wisdom beyond sight.  Humanity, that human nature which enables us to have empathy and sympathy, and appreciate human values and experiences, relates to the attainment of wisdom in life.  In this sense, the discipline of Humanities may be read as a way for us to frame the nature and purpose of humanity.

In a world undergoing its fourth industrial revolution, artificial intelligence has become the order of the day.  Smart phones, smart homes and smart cars, among other numerous smart gadgets and appliances, appear to be our major preoccupation.  Is there a place for the Humanities in such a world?

As an academic discipline, the Humanities encompasses the study of languages and literatures, history, philosophy and religion. With its analytical and critical methods of enquiry, the Humanities distinguishes itself from the Sciences by enabling us to develop our humanity and wisdom in dealing with life and traversing its challenges.  It is widely known that the Humanities as a discipline tends to be sidelined when the going gets tough. Stories of budget cuts in academic programmes in the Humanities are common in Malaysia and the rest of the world.  It would appear that the future of the Humanities is uncertain. 

Nevertheless, as we have seen in our encounter with the world’s latest challenge, the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has a way of righting itself.  Whilst the Sciences continue to play an important role in academia, the Humanities is asserting itself in this time of need.  Research by the British Academy, for example, found that Humanities graduates are as employable as scientists and mathematicians.  Critical and creative thinking, emotional intelligence, language and interpretation skills, social and communication skills, and cultural sensitivity, skills which are nurtured and developed most in Humanities academic programmes, are among the most desired abilities that employers currently look for in graduates.

So, it is like the old woman in the story said, “it is in your hands”.  It is in our hands.  It is our responsibility to hold on to the humanity in the humanities—our soul, our wisdom, as human beings.  - UPM

 

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Noritah Omar
Associate Fellow, Centre for Corporate Strategy and Relations
Department of English
Faculty of Modern Languages and Communication

Date of Input: 12/08/2021 | Updated: 12/08/2021 | hairul_nizam

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