Exploring Humanities Disciplines with South Dakota Humanities Council

Since its inception in 1972, the South Dakota Humanities Council has explored various humanities disciplines including literature, language, ethics and more with the help of acclaimed authors and other experts in humanities fields. Pictured at a 2016 South Dakota Festival of Books event are Pulitzer Prize-winning writers (from left) Michael Dirda, Robert Olen Butler, Shirley Christian, Ted Kooser and T.J. Stiles

From literature and arts to philosophy and linguistics, humanities disciplines cover a variety of subject matter which is explored through South Dakota Humanities Council programming.

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of posts from the South Dakota Humanities Council exploring definitions of the humanities and how they apply to students, teachers and others who are enthusiastic about the humanities disciplines. Understanding what "the humanities" is can be difficult. As a statewide organization whose sole purpose is to promote humanities programming in South Dakota, we're creating this series to help our constituents better understand what we do and where the humanities can take them, both through our organization and myriad other venues. From having a book club meeting to reading a film review, you can take part in the humanities today.

Understanding the Humanities Disciplines and the Humanities

Humanities disciplines – liberal arts fields of study such as literature, history, philosophy -- are opportunities for not only exploring the humanities but also understanding and defining the term "humanities" itself.

Why is it important to us that communities understand what the humanities are? Not only does the South Dakota Humanities Council execute and promote humanities programming throughout our state, but we also foster understanding of the field so that South Dakotans can take full advantage of the opportunities we offer.

Because the words used to identify humanities disciplines -- and the disciplines themselves -- are more vernacular and less abstract than the academic term "the humanities," we're exploring them in this post to help answer the commonly asked question, "what are the humanities?"

What Are the Humanities?

The National Endowment on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 established a humanities definition that is still used by the National Endowment for the Humanities, our parent organization. As a statewide organization bringing humanities programming to South Dakotans, our mission statement is based on that definition:

"The term 'humanities' includes, but is not limited to, the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life."

- National Endowment on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, as amended

Within this definition are the building blocks of humanities: the humanities disciplines, which help make up the humanities courses lists at universities across the country as part of the broader field of study. 

The National Endowment for the Humanities is the parent organization of the South Dakota Humanities Council.

SDHC Programs Educate, Explore Humanities Disciplines

The South Dakota Humanities Council provides humanities education to the public via programs that dive into the various humanities disciplines listed by the NEH. We also seek to educate the public on what the humanities are and why they are important.

In his book, "A New History of the Humanities: The Search for Principles and Patterns from Antiquity to the Present" (Oxford Univ. Press, 2013), author Rens Bod offers a brief but effective humanities definition that can also be applied to the South Dakota Humanities Council's work: "Since the nineteenth century, the humanities have generally been defined as the disciplines that investigate the expressions of the human mind."

The South Dakota Humanities Council's slogan is "Exploring the Human Adventure." By exploring these humanities disciplines that are expressions of the human mind, we explore our humanness and "the humanities" through scholars, authors, and academic experts.

From Pulitzer Prize-winning poets like Ted Kooser to National Book Award-winning authors like Louise Erdrich, our Festival of Books features some of the finest poets, linguists, and literature experts in the U.S., while our Speakers Bureau and grant programs display the talent and knowledge of actors, historians, professors, musicians, and more.

As the 1965 Act explains, such programs allow Americans to recognize and appreciate various forms of creative expression.

"Americans should receive in school, background and preparation in the arts and humanities to enable them to recognize and appreciate the aesthetic dimensions of our lives, the diversity of excellence that comprises our cultural heritage, and artistic and scholarly expression."

Humanities Disciplines Exemplified in SDHC Programming

As the South Dakota Humanities Council helps the public understand humanness and explore the human adventure, we also educate the public on all of the humanities disciplines listed by the NEH.

Below are examples of how the South Dakota Humanities Council explores various humanities disciplines. Many programs cross over several different disciplines. For example, the South Dakota Festival of Books has featured numerous literary fiction authors who teach lessons of history, ethics, jurisprudence, and philosophy through vivid prose that is also a study in the art of language for the reader.

While SDHC programs in one way or another explore all of the humanities disciplines listed in NEH's definition, we've selected five examples: literature, language, history, jurisprudence, and ethics.

The humanities discipline of literature is explored through SDHC programs like the Festival of Books.

Examples of Humanities Disciplines Explored by SDHC 


Literature: "writings in prose or verse"

Language, both modern and classical: "the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community"

The Festival of Books annually showcases more than 50 distinguished authors, scholars, and publishing representatives. It has featured many outstanding writers and cultural figures, such as Pete Dexter, Dave Eggers, Louise Erdrich, Ian Frazier, Jim Harrison, Walter Dean Myers, Annie Proulx, Marilynne Robinson, and Gary Schmidt. The 2016 Festival featured six Pulitzer Prize winners, including 2016 One Book South Dakota author Jane Smiley, and the 2018 Festival featured four. The 2017 Festival focused several sessions on the Vietnam War, led by veterans Robert Olen Butler and Tim O'Brien, winners of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, respectively.

More than 10,000 session attendees explored expressions of authors who've mastered the written word, from creative non-fiction masterminds like Timothy Egan to renowned fiction authors like Alice Sebold. We've also featured poets known for their ability to turn words into memorable rhythms and imagery. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, Guggenheim Fellow Naomi Shihab Nye, former South Dakota poet laureate David Allan Evans, the late Nebraska poet laureate William Kloefkorn, and Native American poet, novelist, and historian Elizabeth Cook-Lynn are just a few of the nationally-recognized poets who've appeared at the South Dakota Festival of Books to share their work.

Studying the humanities discipline of literature by reading the writings of professional storytellers begets a study of the humanities' discipline of language. Pulitzer winner Robert Olen Butler (pictured in header photo) appeared at the 2016 and 2017 Festival of Books. The quote below from his Pulitzer-winning work, "A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain" is an explanation of both language and literature:

"I can speak these words and perhaps you can see these things clearly because you are using your imagination. But I cannot imagine these things because I lived them, and to remember them with the vividness I know they should have is impossible. They are lost to me."

The late Orval Van Deest, the longest-tenured member of the South Dakota Humanities Council Speakers Bureau, taught many history lessons during his time as a speaker for the statewide humanities organization.

The late Orval Van Deest, the longest-tenured member of the South Dakota Humanities Council Speakers Bureau, taught many history lessons during his time as a speaker for the statewide humanities organization.

History: "Tale, story; a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events."

Many South Dakota Humanities Council programs explore the history and events of South Dakota, the United States, and the world. Speakers Bureau members and Festival authors alike examine historical topics such as the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, the life and work of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and much more. SDHC has also published a series of books called "South Dakota Stories" that tell the story of the state through anecdotes told by citizens who lived them.

Many SDHC grantees have explored history in South Dakota, from the events surrounding the "Indian Insane Asylum" in Canton, S.D. to the adventures of Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickock, and other famous figures. Chautauqua" actors from SDHC's Speakers Bureau impersonate famous historical characters and create characters of their own, dramatizing history. For example, longtime Speakers Bureau actor, the late Orval Van Deest, spent 35 years traveling thousands of miles to portray a litany of characters such as American political organizer A.C. Townley, author Sinclair Lewis, Prairie Dog Frank, Hugh Glass-Mountain Man, C.J. "Buffalo Jones," adventurer and frontier scout Capt. Jack Crawford, and many more.

Jurisprudence: "the science or philosophy of law"

Part of South Dakota's history includes landmark court decisions, legal precedents, and other matters, many of which are explored by SDHC's Speakers Bureau scholars in a crossover of history and another humanities discipline, "jurisprudence." Both disciplines are covered in University of South Dakota law professor Frank Pommersheim's "Democracy, the Informed Citizen, and Tribal Sovereignty," which reviews the history of tribal sovereignty within the context of pluralist democracy and the role of the informed citizen. Another Pommersheim program, "Broken Landscape: Indians, Indian Tribes, and the Constitution," explores the legal history that established the relationships between Native Americans and the federal government that remain tenuous to this day.

Law professor Frank Pommersheim, a longtime member of the SDHC Speakers Bureau, explores the humanities disciplines of jurisprudence, history and more via his presentations.

Law professor Frank Pommersheim, a longtime member of the SDHC Speakers Bureau, explores the humanities disciplines of jurisprudence, history and more via his presentations.

Ethics: "the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation"

The South Dakota Humanities Council often also explores many ethical issues via thematic programming related to statewide initiatives, such as "Race and Civility" in 2017 and "Democracy and the Informed Citizen" in 2018.

Race and Civility dovetailed with the National Endowment for Humanities Grant Program, "Humanities and the Legacy of Race and Ethnicity in the United States," which supported public programming that addressed "persistent social, economic, cultural, and racial issues that divide our communities." Per the initiative, SDHC produced programs encouraging peace and respectful dialogue while featuring highly-accomplished, distinguished scholars. Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, encouraged a large crowd at South Dakota State University's Volstorff Ballroom to fulfill moral obligations by opposing bigotry and racism. Although her world was forever altered by what some considered to have been a racially-motivated shooting that took her son's life, Fulton's message focused on kindness and understanding rather than on exacting revenge or reciprocating hatred.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded $1.7 million to the Federation of State Humanities Councils in June 2018 for "Democracy and the Informed Citizen." SDHC received a portion of this funding to produce programs examining democracy and journalism. These programs taught citizens how to find trustworthy news sources and fulfill moral obligations by informing themselves of current events. Groups throughout the state read the 2018 One Book South Dakota, "Informing the News" by Thomas E. Patterson, which argues that deeply introspective, or "knowledge-based," reporting is crucial to the future of democracy and public information.

 Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson speaks at the Journey Museum about

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson speaks at the Journey Museum about "Computers and War" during a program sponsored by the South Dakota Humanities Council. Wilson's presentation was part of a discussion series called "The Cultural Consequences of Computers" produced by SDHC grantee The CLASSICS Institute to explore ethical dilemmas related to technology and computers. 

Ethical dilemmas are often explored by those who received SDHC grants, such as 2018 grantee The CLASSICS Institute, a newly-formed think tank at Dakota State University led by past Festival of Books author Joseph Bottum. The CLASSICS Institute considers the computer revolution a "profound advance" that should prompt from the public "profound suspicions about its ancillary effects." The organization's 2018 lecture series, "The Cultural Consequences of Computers," explored these effects, helping support the organization's foundational beliefs, which, in part, acknowledge the advantages provided by computers while also cautioning against misuse of the technology. The institute is especially concerned with issues of human freedom and privacy in the era of "Big Data."

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