When I attended college I had the extraordinary experience of looking up at Pikes Peak every day. I was inspired by how the peak had towered above the plains for millennia – but also how its appearance changed from moment to moment according to the light, the cloud cover, the snow fall and the snow melt.
I thought about what the peak meant for the Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians, for Western explorers and pioneers, for painters and biologists and geologists, for the nuclear analysts who hunkered down below the peak’s foothills. Pikes Peak became a way for me to think about the relationship between the timeless and the evanescent, the universal and the particular, my reality and that of others.
I had discovered philosophy in high school, and pursued a bachelor’s degree in that field, particularly drawn to questions about intersubjectivity: How, and how much, do human beings share experiences? How does this enable us to shape a common sense of reality? Of morality? Of beauty? How does our imaginative identification with the experiences of others sometimes fail us? I was haunted by the Holocaust, the destruction of Hiroshima, the ongoing Viet Nam war — and these questions had considerable weight for me as I considered how I would live my life.
An interdisciplinary set of courses on the Southwest turned my attention to anthropology as a broad, comparative way of considering these issues, and I eventually decided to pursue a graduate degree in cultural anthropology. I became fascinated with the wide range of approaches to life and thought that human beings have fashioned across time and space. I developed research projects focusing on Native North American cultures, with an emphasis on how non-indigenous people in the U.S. have both identified with and defined themselves against Native peoples.
In my teaching, though, I have had the opportunity to look at the contours of human life across the globe. In my cultural anthropology classes the students and I consider questions such as: How have human beings sustained ourselves? Organized ourselves? Imagined and expressed ourselves? Fashioned a moral order? Exerted power over others? Connected the past to the present and future? How does knowing about other ways of shaping human life help us to become more conscious of the strengths and limitations of our own cultural forms? How does such knowledge help us imagine alternatives?
Thinking about such questions is critical to living in today’s cosmopolitan world. Philosophy and anthropology, history and literature, classics and art history, comparative languages and religion, the performing arts, and new fields like cultural studies and gender studies: these humanities disciplines broaden our horizons, deepen our understanding, and develop our capacity for critical and comparative thought.
I now have the great pleasure of directing The University of Texas at Austin Humanities Institute, where faculty, students, visiting scholars and community members come together to “think in community” about what it means to be human – in our own time and place and in other worlds, both real and imaginary.
At a time when education is too often reduced to training for a career, it is crucial for the university to continue to provide a place for broad questions about human experience.