Friday, March 12, 2010

An argument that the humanities are not a luxury . . .

My father couldn’t sing. A cruel fate, because he loved songs. He grew up when the walls of the city shook with the new rhythms of rock ‘n’ roll. Still, what his ear and brain could capture with fidelity, his voice simply couldn’t reproduce.

That’s OK. He has plenty of other talents, avid gardener, armchair Civil War historian. No area of study really seemed to elude him. Renaissance man? More like Renaissance Fair man—living at a boundary with the past and present few curiosities could maintain.

As my father began to battle brain lymphoma at age 67, it was hard to watch this everyday brilliance of his falter. The neurons couldn’t carry messages they once did. Short-term memory was non-existent. Sometimes, even simple categories stumped him. A man who for most of his life could have given the regiments and troop movements of Gettysburg, couldn’t name three presidents.

I work at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. A constant challenge of the public humanities is showing how studies in history, literature, music, and philosophy improve our understanding of the present.
My father’s son, this kind of work seems almost hereditary. But in the light of his newer and harsher neurological realities, were the humanities really a necessity or a luxury?

Well, in the humanities, I had heard for patients with short-term memory problems, music could be a way back into their misplaced narratives, to the deeper or wider channels of the brain.

On Christmas Eve, I was around his hospital bed watching White Christmas, the Bing Crosby classic, repeated all day.
“When I'm worried and I can't sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings.”
There, amid the glow of his TV-lit room, brain addled by cancer, my father began to sing along with Der Bingel. In tune we knew would have been too much to ask, but he sang in time.

I told him I’d never heard him sing it before. It was quite popular, he said, a radio hit in its day.

I began to reflect on the work I do with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, where anthropology, folklife, music, and history are like strains of a song that need each other to sound right. Song itself is a way to reflect on, enhance, and expand the time we have.

My father couldn’t sing, but he has a song. It bespeaks connections to history, literature, religion, ethics, the arts, and philosophy. In short, the humanities.

Would my father want to see the news that humanities funding is on the state chopping block, once again? No. But if I go to work every day on behalf of these seeming abstractions, it’s because I know that they are the things that shape who we really are, even when so much else is stripped away. They make our private and communal lives richer. They are what we’ll consider when we grapple with what it has meant to be alive.

“Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul” Plato said; I was grateful to find secret places my dad and I have yet to talk about. Don’t believe it’s a luxury. We all need the passage into each others’ lives that a song, a story, a study—the humanities—can provide.
---Poet Kevin McFadden is Chief Operating Officer for the Virginia Foundation for Humanities in Charlottesville


  1. Great piece and argument for the arts and humanities funding. What struck me was the description of your father's singing. My mother, who is 88 and has senile dementia, no short term memory and failing long term, can still remember and sing the songs she taught me when I was a child. I wonder if this is something that is retained in all folks with dementia or other brain injuries? Thanks!

  2. There have been studies on this in caregivers:

    How singing unlocks the brain:



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I write for lots of different venues, so this blog provides links to those places. Plus, occasionally, stuff that appears no where else . . .