Why the Humanities: 'We Just Might Learn What it Means to be Human'

Why the Humanities?

By Jason McEntee

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.

Dr. Jason McEntee is professor and department head of English at South Dakota State University, coordinator of the Literature and Medicine program and a member of the South Dakota Humanities Council Board of Directors.

Humanities-Based Community Outreach

Nearly seven years ago, I attended an outreach meeting with the Sioux Falls VA Hospital Outreach Director and members of her staff, as well as members of the South Dakota Humanities Council. This particular group of people sought my expertise on teaching war literature and film for building a sustainable literature and medicine program for hospital staff and veterans. The results of that meeting have led me to one of my most challenging and rewarding professional activities: serving as coordinator of the Sioux Falls VA Literature & Medicine Program from 2010-present.

The ongoing and evolving practices used by the Literature & Medicine Group of the Sioux Falls VA Hospital showcase how embracing the humanities—in this case, through the study of literature—has both practical and important connections and applications to our communities at large. Over the years, the group has grown to include practicing direct patient outreach with literature and film.

Positive Ripple Effects

Its many, positive ripple effects have led to joint sponsorship with the South Dakota Humanities Council (SDHC), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Maine Humanities Council (MHC) to facilitate ongoing veterans' writing workshops in several cities across the state and with South Dakota State University's English Department to create programming related to veterans' issues (such as the 2014 Great Plains Writers Conference, which had as its theme Coming Home: War, Healing, and American Culture).

Using war literature and film beyond their normal boundaries as means of entertainment or classroom education has allowed me to re-purpose them as vessels of outreach and as narratives of healing, as ways to honor and understand both the veteran and his or her family. We can assign meaning to multiple forms of narrative discourse when they are used as learning tools in multi-faceted medical and therapeutic, public and private environments.

Award winning author Phil Klay was featured at the South Dakota Festival of Books.

National Book Award winning author Phil Klay ("Redeployment") speaks to audience members at the South Dakota Festival of Books.

Nationally-recognized Veteran Authors

Over the years, with help from numerous humanities organizations, including the SDHC, the NEH, and the MHC, we have regularly brought in nationally-recognized veterans-turned-authors as guest speakers to present to, share with, and workshop with, hospital staff and veterans. These speakers have included Colby Buzzell, Ron Capps, Phil Klay, Karl Marlantes, Brian Turner, and Kayla Williams.

We are proud to be a part of a larger, mainstream movement to cross the boundaries between what we would typically call the "humanities" and the "social"/"medical" sciences in order to treat veterans. But we could not do this without support from the humanities. We have seen the humanities community form a resounding response to address returning soldiers and the potential short- and long-term problems they might face in their return to civilian life as well as from PTSD and other problems.

Not surprisingly, we see the power of narrative as a driving force in helping our veterans, as well as those families and communities who are affected by war.

One Final, Important Question

Over the past six years, I have given local-, regional-, and national-level presentations on the "hows" and "whys" of the program. In so doing, I attempt to answer such questions as how did it get started and why is it important, what are the pedagogical choices that go into the curriculum and instruction, and how do our learning outcomes and the space of the "classroom" (often a multi-purpose room nestled deep within the VA hospital) both reconfigure the definition of "learning" and promote the role of the humanities as central to our society's core values?

And one final, important question arises: Why are the humanities important to our communities, to our nation, and to our world? There are many answers to this question, of course, but I keep coming back to this one: When we learn with each other, we grow with each other; and when we grow together, we just might learn what it means to be human—and to be humane—in an ever-changing world.

Subscribe for More

Do you want to read more about why the humanities are important? Subscribe to our blog at the link below.

Why the Humanities is a new blog series from the South Dakota Humanities Council.