Why the Humanities: 'Connections Enhance the Human Experience'

Why the Humanities?

By Judith Meierhenry

Editor's Note: "Why the Humanities" is an SDHC blog series explaining the importance of the humanities to our state and nation. The series features guest posts from experts in the humanities disciplines and those who have been touched by humanities programming. The opinions expressed in this series do not represent official views of the South Dakota Humanities Council and are the sole property of the author.

Judith Meierhenry is a retired South Dakota Supreme Court Justice and chair of the South Dakota Humanities Council Board of Directors.

Understanding and Experiencing What Makes Us Human

The humanities indiscriminately touch all of us. They help us understand and experience what makes us human. I was introduced to the humanities, without knowing it, in grade school. We did not have much in my one-room rural schoolhouse, but we had access to books. A tiny bookshelf in the back of the classroom only had a few well-worn books.

Most of us did not have books at home. Our parents had survived the depression and WWII, and books were not in their budgets. Consequently, my love affair with books was sparked in grade school.

A Spark Ignited

I think that spark was first ignited when the teacher began reading a chapter from a book each day after recess. I was hooked. The people and places came alive. The stories were magic. I wanted to read every book I could get my hands on. It did not take long to read all the books in our school's meager library. Luckily, our teachers supplemented with books from the county library.

The teacher would drive to the county library, check out enough books to fill a large box and then tote them to school and dole them out. Each month, she would return those we had read for a new batch. We could hardly wait to see which new books the teacher brought each month.

From the books, we learned of faraway places and interesting people and stories that became part of our lives. We shared our thoughts and feelings about the books we read with our teacher and our fellow students.

Besides learning about people and places in the books we read, we also learned about each other. We learned about a fellow student's deep passion for horses when we read the book "Game Legs" by Arthur C. Bartlett. We all cried together for the sad but heroic ending of the book and, in the process, understood why she could feel the way she did about horses.

Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys

Some of the books inspired us. The girls all wanted to be as independent and smart as Nancy Drew and begged the teacher to bring as many Nancy Drew mysteries as she could. The boys preferred the Hardy Boys mysteries or Horatio Alger adventures. Cleverly, the teacher sneaked "real literature" among the month's stash of books, forcing us to read those while we passed around the mystery and adventure books.

Our book discussions and critiques were, in retrospect, some of our first experiences with the humanities.
Books and the information they hold have been so integral to my life that I can't imagine my life without them. Whether literary books or law books, they have given me success, insight into the human condition and a full life.

A Book and All Its Magic

This is part of the reason I feel so strongly about the South Dakota Humanities Council and the programs we support. We celebrate books and literature through our Young Readers Initiative and the annual South Dakota Festival of Books. People across the state benefit – rural and urban. Nationally recognized authors come to South Dakota to talk about their books. Our programs connect people, and those connections enhance the human experience.

The Young Readers Program puts books into the hands of school children across the state. In most cases, the children also get to meet and learn about the book from the author. Over 11,000 South Dakota second and third graders have participated in the last three years. Like my experience as a child, some of these children do not have books at home. And almost none of them have had the chance to meet an author. With this program, they get to have the book and all its magic as their own.

Fundraising Goal Exceeded

This year, we have the opportunity to expand this program to more communities in the rural and reservation areas of our state with a matching grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities. As of April 24, we have deposited $50,150 in receipts, exceeding our first goal of raising $50,000 by May 1, 2017. (See complete list of donors who helped us meet our first goal HERE). 

This means NEH will match that with a $50,000 deposit. While this is cause for celebration, our second goal remains ahead of us. If we raise another $50,000 by May 1, 2018, NEH will again match those funds. The resulting $200,000 will allow an estimated 2,000 additional students to receive books annually over the three-year grant period.

Fostering the appreciation of books has lasting effects. Books can open a young mind to a world of knowledge and dreams. They certainly did for me. Please support the humanities.

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