Astonishing Creatures

This post was written by Benjamin Jacob, HC Student Fellow, Interdisciplinary Humanities major

I hope you will indulge a personal piece on this week’s blog.

You see, this will be my last chance to write for the illustrious (nay the prestigious!) Humanities Center Blog, due to my upcoming graduation.  In preparation for this piece, I toyed with several different ideas but kept coming back to a feeling of gratitude for my time as a humanities student at BYU.  In my piece, I want to express my sincere thanks to you, my beloved professors and colleagues in the humanities, for what I have gained during my years with you.  The majority of you likely have never met me nor had me in your classes. But don’t let that diminish my sincerity. I know that many of your students feel just like I do. I hope to give voice to all of the students in the college of humanities. What I’d like say is thank you. 

For many of us, the reasons we study the humanities sometimes defy attempts at explanation. When I try to explain why the humanities matter to me, I am reminded of something the soprano Maria Callas said in explaining how she found inspiration for her movements on stage. She said, “Listen to the music. If you take the trouble to really listen with your soul and with your ears, you will find every gesture there.” As I have “listened to the music” of the humanities, I have felt my soul expand, my understanding deepen, and my empathy increase.  Many of us embrace the humanities because of what the arts say to both our souls and our ears, both the logical and the spiritual, the concrete and the ethereal dimensions of our lives. 

Yet, our understanding of this “music” has been dependent on your efforts and talents in teaching.  You have helped us to see complexity when before we saw only homogeneity.  Your high level of examination, analysis, and observation has inspired and motivated us.  And you have been patient as we have struggled to see what you see.  You have given us the chance to share our barbaric yawps and even given us pointers on how to do so. 

Countless have been the times when I have left a class filled with exhilaration and wonder about the insights that we explored in those short 50 minutes. Other times I have walked the stairwells and hallways of the JFSB in realization of the horrors of the world, the cruelty of others, and the dangers of mindlessness.  My own humility and smallness have been highlighted; my hope and zeal to explore, express, and exclaim in this world have increased. And it is thanks to you and your work. 

Your influence is perhaps greater than you realize. My mother studied humanities at BYU from 1987 to 1992. Although she chose not to work in academic or professional fields, her humanities education provided the basis for her parenting priorities. I grew up surrounded by books of art, philosophy, and great literature. She made trips to museums and historical sites a priority during my childhood. Constantly she would mention artists or philosophies she had learned about at BYU.  Even now, thirty years later, she talks about the professors she had and the classes she took.  What she learned at BYU has never ceased to enrich her life.  Because of the work of her professors, her insights and love for the beauties of the world were passed on to me. 

So, speaking as someone who has benefited both directly and indirectly from the work of the College of Humanities at BYU, I know that what you do here is life-changing and long-lasting.  I hope you see the work you do each day—as you research, teach, write, and read–as the important and ennobling endeavor it is. Marcel Proust said “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”  That is what you are about here, giving us new eyes. And I struggle to express how much that means to me. How can you thank someone who has helped you see with new eyes?

Nonetheless, I say thanks. Thank you for your brilliance and your patience. Thank you for your sacrifice and your attention.  Thank you for explaining this world in thoughtful, powerful ways. Thank you for listening to us, to all our frustrations and fears, and for validating our thoughts (even as half-baked and embryonic as they might be).  Thank you for coming to your classes with a gusto, love, and passion for the ideas that you teach. 

In her September 2016 lecture on BYU Campus, author Marilynne Robinson charged her audience to “face the truth that human beings are astonishing creatures.” Looking back on my years at BYU, I realize now that as I studied the masterworks of many astonishing human creatures, I have been privileged to be taught by some of the most astonishing creatures along the way. 

Thank you. 

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