>> William Craig Rice is the Director of the Division of Education Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities, which sponsors seminars for college and school teachers on subjects as diverse as Shakespeare's plays, Mayan civilization and the Civil Rights Movement. Bill's remarks today don't represent the views of the National Endowment for the Humanities, but are simply his as a teacher, writer and scholar. Bill previously served as the 12th president of Shimer College, the Great Books college of Chicago and he taught writing seminars for many years at Harvard University. He's the author of public discourse and academic inquiry and of essays and verse in cultural periodicals. He was recently given a life time achievement award for contributions to the humanities by Utah Valley University. It's a pleasure to speak here today with Bill Rice. Bill, I've seen you in action, reading difficult material. For example, Adam Smith's Rhetorical Discourses. You seem to be able to synthesize and chunk the essential ideas in difficult reading material like that very easily. Do you have any suggestions for us mere mortals about how we can do something a little similar. >> I don't know that I'm any better at this than another reader would be, because what I start with is just noticing. I was taught this a long time ago that you don't need to be ready to analyze or make an argument or otherwise elaborate. Just read and when you notice something, mark it. Just noticing is a neutral act, it's giving your own mind credit for being alive. That's really important and I mark with a little vertical sign on the margin. Other people could use other methods, but I think that's the starting point. Once you do that, you may notice that you're noticing the same thing over and over again. In which case, I call it a pattern an original idea, but you look for patterns. And that's related to the idea of chunks, except that I guess chunks can also be sections of, of argument that you begin to detect. I find too is something that's potentially really dry, like rhetoric and written. Basically, what we were reading was lecture notes taken by someone else of a man who's mainly famous for other things, namely inventing the modern science of economy, but also as a philosopher. So, I found that the best thing to do was to notice and watch for patterns. >> Well, probably early on here, we should define what do we really mean. What, what are the humanities? Don't people get confused about this? >> Well, they do. People think it means humanitarian as in humanitarian aid. They think it means humanity as in some great cause for saving the world from ourselves. And actually, the humanities are a number of academic disciplines. Philosophy, the study of religion, literature, history, art history. To some extent, anthropology when it's most concerned with should we say, the human nature. Those are the fields and there, there are others that creep in, classics certainly, archeology. They're actually called the humanities, because what happened was when the fields were being divided, you had the natural sciences, like physics and astronomy and chemistry. And then you had the social sciences, the hard kind of social sciences, like psychology, sociology. And when they were done with those that, everything that was left was called the humanities. So, it was a process of elimination and they got left on the table. They're, it, that's the definition, but it's strange, because people don't get it. Similarly, people often don't understand the term liberal arts. They are, some people, I remember one fellow saying to me. Well, what about conservative arts? And, you know, with liberal education, what about conservative education? You get, people understand the basic, ter, misunderstand the basic terms. Perhaps, because thy haven't been taught them. It's not deliberate. But we're saddled with terms that are unfortunate in a way, because people don't understand them. >> Well, good approaches to learning, often involve transfer from one field, for example, mathematics to another field, like music or language. But each field has its own special challenges. Are there approaches that you reco, would recommend that are applicable, particularly applicable for the humanities? >> Yes. One broad point is that in chemistry. Although in the theoretical realm, there are lots of ambiguities and uncertainties among those who are doing pioneering work. For the, for a large part, for those of us who are studying at a relatively introductory or intermediate level there are answers to be arrived at through methods that are, will help illuminate how a field works. This will be true in chemistry or astronomy. There are measurements to be taken. There are all kinds of re, reasonably objective, repeatable exercises that determine what knowledge is. And this isn't, I don't mean to over simplify the sciences, but that's broadly true and it's not broadly true in the humanities, which are are concerned with questions more than with answers. You have to be interested and tolerant of at least ambiguity the idea that a question remains unsolved for pretty much the entirety of human history or at least of recent human history. So, it's important to understand that controversies aren't settled in the humanities. They're more likely simply to be raised and explored. That's the, those are the broad brush the broad brush need you have in the, in humanities when you're approaching it particularly at the beginning. That you're not striving for a direct, complete, final answer. This is hard for students who have been trained to take exams and get, you know, get to the right answers by whatever, by whatever means they can. Instead in the humanities, what you admire in in the work of someone who's just figuring things out, it's a kind of openness to contrary evidence. That seems to me broadly, the way to go. As to the specific fields there are lots of sub-que, sub, sub-questions or, or second order problems to explore. But broadly speaking in the humanities, it's about tolerance of ambiguity. And at a certain point, a real love of ambiguity, which can of course, become quite frustrating for people. [LAUGH] Because you never feel like you're getting an answer from this guy at the front of the class or wherever. >> That's true. That I think that's so true and it's such a different way of looking at things than we, for example, in engineering and how we look at things. But I think actually, both approaches can be so interesting and useful. And I think for, for engineers and for those in humanities, sort of getting an understanding and a tolerance of both of our perspectives is probably worth while. Students in the humanities, sometimes complain that they're expected to make arguments, but they don't have anything to say. >> Mm-hm. >> So, it's not that they don't care, they do the reading. They actually participate in all the discussions. >> They wanna be involved, it's just they can't come up with a position to defend. So what advice would you give in this circumstance? >> Well, [LAUGH] I was in that position myself for many years. I thought it was borderline preposterous to call on me to have anything to say or to ask me to write a, an eight or ten or twelve or twenty page papers when I really hadn't read enough to have anything legitimate to say. I was I found this to be one of the problems in classroom education and perhaps one of the ways in which online education could begin to untangle a problem of the, the given time in a semester. So I remember, again and again, feeling like the best thing I could do would be was to read and to take notes, which I think is absolutely essential, by the way. If you, you have to read and be content with being alone. We talk a lot about group work, but a lot of it's solo. Reading and taking notes. In any case, back to the question. I found that I was in again and again faced with a problem of finding something to say. So what I, the advice I give is ask for, if you don't find, conflicting interpretations of the thing you're studying. It might be two scholars who disagree on what Machiavelli meant when he said, the prince should be more concerned about being feared than about being loved. People different, differ on that and authorities differ. If you can, if you don't find that in the materials that you're assigned as it were seek them out. What are the, what are the flash points? Where are the major points of contention? And instead of thinking, well, I agree with this side or the other side, instead say gee. How is this argument a stronger argument than another? Not whether it's right or not, but whether it's stronger. It's who has the better evidence. Who is pointing to evidence that is harder to understand? Who's taking on the more difficult questions? That's the first thing that I would recommend is, is looking for conflicting interpretations. Another is to look at, particularly when you're studying what we call a primary source. I would cite Mary Wollstonecraft's work on, on the in the late 18th century on the education of women or Thomas Jefferson's statute for religious freedom in Virginia. Reading that, you feel a real rhetorical power. These people are making an argument. What are they arguing against? It's not often clear in the given text what the argument is. Who, who, who and what they're aiming at? And if you can read carefully, sometimes you can make a, what we ca, inference. Because Jefferson is so concerned about the government giving special treatment to members of the Anglican Church. What we, well, why was that an issue? It prompts one to want to know more. So, if you have the rhetorical flashpoints in view, you can then ask questions of an objective nature. What was it that got Wollstonecraft or Jefferson or anyone else worked up? What was it that got Machiavelli worked up? Those are, those are what questions and they send you back into historical information. So those are some of the ways I would approach the problem of having nothing to say. But in the end, I wish we had a system of education that was described to me by young woman I knew who had gone to an English University, Cambridge. And she, I said, how did you get to be so knowledgeable and such a good writer? And so careful in your, in your thinking. As you said, well, all the way through four years as an undergraduate, I was told I had to write summaries. Summary, given an article, write a summary. One page, one page, one page. Pracies, they called them over there. That was hugely helpful to her. She wasn't asked to come up with something of her own to say, she was asked to explain what other people had said and that was a real revelation to me. And then from then on, when I was in the classroom I would assign summaries. Because It wasn't, it was something you could do differently, not all summaries had to be the same, but you would learn the material that way without having to be invested in whether you had an argument to make. Understanding other's thinking actually can open up one's own thinking and my Dr. Vater Richard Marius the director of writing at Harvard used to say, encourage your students not so much to be in, you know, original thinkers, but to find their thinking in the thinking of others. That's okay. That's what, really what scholarship and learning and humanity is, is about. It's about standing on the shoulders of others in order to understand, perhaps a little bit better. I know that when I'm doing writing, I often, I think of writing as something I do to help me better understand my own thoughts. >> Mm-hm. >> And when I'm beginning to write something, I'm looking at the thoughts of others. But it's, it's what I start trying to struggle with putting words in the paper myself that I start to understand my own words. But then observation of the woman that you knew about writing summaries, that's such an exquisite approach to learning. Because it, it helps neurally in code in a small chunk. >> Mm-hm. >> What the main ideas are and that actually does really help you to better understand your own thoughts. And another thing I just have to bring up is that I, I very much admire your, your thought in relation to it, it is important to work alone sometimes. >> Yeah. >> And we do have this enormous emphasis. I mean, there's, there are trends in education, in fads- >> Mm-hm. >> So forth and they go in and out. One of the current fads is to do a lot of group work. >> Right. Mm-hm. >> and I, I emphasize that myself and I think there's value in it. But also too much group work and you start to think like other people, instead of- >> Mm-hm. >> Thinking independently. >> Yeah. >> And part of what I think we value in western society, in modern society is this idea to think more independently as well as to understand the opinions of others. >> Mm-hm. >> So, anyway, with that, what hinders students most from learning in the humanities? >> Well, you know, I think it gets back to this problem of being comfortable with ambiguity. A feeling that there is some way of understanding that, that, that they haven't got yet. And that the teacher has and is in a very frustrating way, insisting they find for themselves. That I think is, is, is a psychological level and at a level of interaction certainly in a classroom though, less so online where one is working primarily in the solo context. The another problem, though is that what we call discipline-specific learning. It's not the same to play chess and play baseball to to, to do many different things in life. To cook well. To To make furniture. Not all skills are really transferable. It's, there's discipline specific understanding. And, in a, it, there's a certain kind of reasoning that takes place with historians. They go into archives, they find the a rare set of letters between a, an early Nobel Prize winner and his editor and they look into that and they find all kinds of issues of the day were boiling right beneath. These letters have, have remarks on the outbreak of World War I that are very hard to understand and that to a historian is fascinating. Something distant, archival. It takes a certain kind of thinking, what was it that was bothering people? What, what were the arguments that are not being made? What inferences can we make from a, an old source that nobody's looked at in a long time? That's what historical reasoning is partly about. It's about other things as well. In in, in other fields, say, take art history, you have the notion of building on, on achievements. The discovery of ways of accurately depicting perspective which occurred in the 15th century. That builds, that then builds to other achievements some achievements in the arts were really, really advanced in the classical era, in sculpture the depiction, accurate depiction of the human body is recovered later on in the renaissance. So there's a notion of building on, on previous achievements. That's a, a way of understanding that is particularly common in our history. Where it's breakthrough, after breakthrough, after breakthrough. Getting up finally to the influence of African sculpture on on European artists, in, in the, at the turn of the last century. And, and with Cubism. So, these are ways of understanding that are specific to the disciplines. Anthropologists look at topics like marriage or, exchange, or or food prohibitions in very different from the ways that a that, that, that we typically look at. So they have a broad view of all kinds of human variations, and literary scholars are probably those who are most pursuant who pursued the ambiguities of, of, of, of language most energetically because poetry and novels depend on multiple meanings, multiple layers of interpretation. And, none of them ab, absolutely certain. Some of them probably wrong but that's been an issue in the field for some time. So, it's, I would say the disciplines have their own ways and those are frustrating because people want to understand a given field coming in with what they already have from another field. In your materials which I thought were so helpful, the eye of Einstellung. You come in to a problem with mental equipment that solved the last problem that you solved and it doesn't work. For example, you could look at history. Partly eh, almost any historical phenomenon from the point of view of competition. But if you take the, the lens of competition to other subjects it doesn't work. You can take chronology and it doesn't always work. There, so, it seems to me those are some of the things that stand between a person studying humanities for, for the first time, or for the first time in a while. And, and a feeling of accomplishment. >> Mm-hm. So one thing that, that surprises me sometimes, is I so love people who come with a, a background in the humanities because of their tolerance of ambiguity, except for one thing. They often are intolerant of lack of ambiguity. >> Hm. >> And they can think that people with a scientific training or an engineering training, are simplistic because things are so straightforward. And of course that's, that sort of putting their own lens in their own stereotypes on what's going on in those fields because often there's much more ambiguity and divergence of approaches, that might be a imagined. But also, I think sometimes lack of ambiguity is okay. If something is clear, if 2 plus 2 actually does equal 4. You know, that's not necessarily a bad thing to have that lack of, ambiguity. So, anyway, the, there's just such differences. >> Well, I, that's actually, particularly a problem, that the frustration is a, is a very understandable one. I think it's most, most felt in the field of the study of literature. They're trends that have affected teaching for the last 30, 40 years. That, say an effect that, or at least that are understood, whether correctly or not, to say that you are, that an interpretation can, is, that all interpretations have some validity because they occurred in an individual mind. Well, sometimes things are flat out wrong. And, we, in the Humanities, we have not been sufficiently attentive to the, the idea of validity. >> Uh-huh. >> Of, of implausibility, of being wrong about a given thing. There are sometimes interpretations that are mounted, that are flat out just wrong. And claims made that are indefensible that wind up falling apart including some great thinkers. Sigmund Freud was caught out in his interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci. He relied on the mistranslation of the key word in the text, and his entire interpretation was built on that, on that one flaw, and once that flaw was revealed. The, the, it was a house of cards. Similarly, I understand, though I don't know this case as well, that, Martin Heidegger was called out on a misinterpretation of a painting by Van Gogh of, shoes. And in both cases the man who called them out was an art historian who knew the material a lot better. So, humanists tend to get into a lot of trouble when they try to be interdisciplinary. Sometimes they do it and do it brilliantly. But, one thing about scientists that I so admire, is that they have tremendous respect for the limitations of their own understanding. This, this is built into lab work. To the careful pursuit of conclusions, some of which don't work out. In fact, a lot of which don't work out. Very comfortable with that. Because when you find out you're wrong, in a, in an experiment in a, in sequencing DNA that is knowledge. That's a contribution. That this avenue doesn't go anywhere. That it leads to an, you know, that it was unproductive. I haven't seen that kind of recognition in the humanities very much. >> Right. Well, one thing I sometimes notice is that there is this tendency for moral relativism that can arise and The way that is found out of that is sort of, there's a happy medium to everything. >> Mm-hm. >> And so I always, I kinda think sometimes. Well is there a happy medium then to genocide? I mean if, you know, if no genocide and then there's genocide does that mean that there's a happy medium in where, you know? >> Yeah. >> Which is, I, I think all of these things, sometimes an engineering approach or a more scientific approach to these kinds of issues where, where you are able to make a decision as to whether something is right or wrong. It can be helpful. >> Well, absolutely. And I'll even go one better, which is that it's not the case that creativity and imagination are the primary primarily owned by the humanities. I don't believe that for a minute. The, a scientist is testing implausible ideas and really testing them. And there, the creativity that's gone into computer science, into modern physics, just to take the most staggering example. There, there's tremendous energy and imagination coupled with discipline in the sciences. So, when people, and when people talk about philoso, the humanities taking on the moral dimensions of existence. No. Scientists and others do this all the time as well. I, I think it's very unhelpful for humanists to claim that they have some special access to a, a moral high ground. This is probably not true, and certainly unhelpful in advancing the cause and making people want to study literature or history or philosophy or, or comparative religion which is something we really need now. >> Right. >> We need to understand other religions, because we're mixing up in ways we never did before. >> Right, right. >> And, and that's the most pressing of our needs, it seems to me. And it's it's one thing the humanities scholars and the humanities texts and so forth can really help people do. >> Let me ask you this. So, what about the use of online resources like Wikipedia? Do you have any sorts of advice for us there? >> Well the jury is still out on all of that, but it's, what I understand is that in classes, whether online or in person people are often discouraged from using those sources, unless they go through some kind of vetting. On the one hand, if you look up a Wikipedia entry for something that is fairly remote, and not very controversial, or not controversial at all. Such as navigable rivers in Africa or the history of a given plant, its migration across across the globe, historically. Which has happened, is one of the interesting things is botany. There you might get a pretty reliable case in the, in the Wikipedia entry. But if you look up something like the Kennedy assassination, or the Reagan administration policy in Central America. Or any number of other subjects of great controversy. Then the Wikipedia entry is a kind, is a battleground. And that may be interesting to look at, but if you're looking for information you, you're in, you get into trouble. It used to be that you could say if any site has a .edu after it, that that was a good sign, but th, that seems to me not, not something you'd wanna take to the bank. In many cases a .edu is a good sign, but there are some subjects on which, there are, you know, fringe elements, within academia that present as objective ideas or information that, that others would challenge. Main thing is to, that I happen to know that certain things are controversial, and you happen to know that. But a person starting out, or kind of midway through the study of a given subject, can't be expected to know what's controversial. So you're really out at sea with online resources. This was true of print resources in the past as well. Things like comments on online sources sometimes can reveal a controversy embedded. If you have an, an entry in, in a blog with 264 comments following it, you can bet that something in there ticked people off. And that there's something at, in dispute. So I, those are, those are, I think the problem is not, is not resolved yet. We don't have a Good Housekeeping seal. And we have some mater, some sites from learned societies that are probably more reliable than others, but many of them are restricted access. So you don't really know. You have to be a paid up member in order to get access to what other scholars have vetted. In, and in that case you know, that's not much help to a person out there trying to learn on his or her own. I wish I could give a more, a more encouraging answer. I think things are just working out. The great news on online resources is that if you're interested in a, well, I, I read a lot of poetry, and I think of a particular author and I hear about a poem, I look, and there it is online. Now, I will say though, typos slip in. The additions of different poets sometimes are at variance and sometimes it really matters. Even a comma in a Robert Frost poem can be a matter of considerable contention among those who are devoted to Robert Frost. And which edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman you're looking at can be a matter of great concern. So, even there, there's a sloppiness to a lot of what's online. And an inattentiveness to things like accidentals, and, and formatting. And in a lot of cases really quite hideous formatting that are hard on the eyes, and doesn't make one want to read. So there are many, many issues at stake. Again, I wish I could say something more emphatically encouraging, but it's what we have. It's all, in many ways, all to the good, because things are available now that were just required a trip to a major library in the past. >> Well, I think one thing that's of interest for people is, Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist has, he has made the point that there's our fast thinking system and our slow thinking system. And our fast thinking is emotionally based, and so things like empathy and sympathy for others that, that's very fast. >> Hm. >> And logical thinking is slow, much slower. >> Hm. >> So often what very intelligent people can do is they can leap to conclusions based on their fast thinking systems. And once they have leapt to those kinds of conclusions, Einstellung kicks in. They already think they have the answer, and so they're not gonna think about more rational considerations. >> Hm. >> So it, my own research area involves how altruism, well meaning efforts, can go awry, and actually end up harming people. >> Mm-hm. >> So sometimes, I think, in these Wikipedia articles people will go in, and they'll edit, and they'll They'll rewrite directly counter to what is known in the facts. But they do that because they really think they're helping others. Those fast systems have kicked in and you overwritten everything else, and so, facts kind of can go out the wayside. >> Mmhm. >> And I find that whole circumstance very interesting. But the one really interesting thing about that is you can have a really smart person who jumps to conclusions. They think they've got the right answer for helping people. And then other people can jump on board and you can think hey look there's a large group of people. They must all be right >> Mmhm. >> There couldn't be that many people that're being wrong. But actually that herd can go right along doing things that can be very harmful for people. And, we saw that with national socialism in in Nazi Germany. >> Right. >> We saw that in Communist Russia with Stalin. We, we've, so large groups of people can become involved in these kinds of things. Well, I have to ask you though. You are probably one of the most wide-read just interested in new things people I've ever met. >> Oh. >> So what kinds of things do you, do you do and what could you say to our viewers about how to kind of keep interested and, and keep your love of learning alive. Any, any final thoughts on that. >> Thank you, I don't, I don't think of myself as having that much of a range but I, I, I do read what I feel like reading. And, for better or worse, I seem to have continued to do it. It hasn't always been professionally to my advantage but I did it anyway because I just felt that to do anything else would have bored me or turned me into something I didn't want to be. You create your own world. And if you get to choose what's in it, you have a, only yourself to blame if things don't work out, but you also have your, you have some self, sense of self awareness that comes from, making choices. I think people should trust what interests them. I don't mean just follow your dreams but, but to be disciplined about the dream. To choose books or ideas, particularly those that aren't, don't represent too deep a commitment. Try something short before try, trying something long. Guess that's why I'm attracted to poetry, you can come back and re-read and re-read but it's not, they're not that long, most poems. Artwork's the same thing, you can keep coming back to look at something or a particular event if it's recorded on YouTube or on a, or, or a speech, something that's, that's, in effect, not quite memorizable, but easy to commit in a lot of detail to memory. Stock your memory. Because when you're bored if you're waiting in line to get on an airplane or you're waiting for your car to be fixed and you have a flat tire and, you know, or whatever. If you have your mind well stocked with fairly specific, and tight, and coherent things, it makes life a lot easier to get through. And is a source of enter, you know, entertainment, or even of passion. I think reading is the main way to, where I happen to have gotten. But it wasn't always voluminous, but rather selective according to my interests. A lot of people in America, thanks to technology, have a great commitment and love of music. It wasn't possible a, a hundred years ago. You, you didn't have phonograph, well, you had phonographs just be coming out and, you know, the recorded sound technology was making some progress. But a hundred years before that you, you had to listen to music being played. It had a great power in human life back then, but now it's everywhere. It's annoyingly everywhere, actually. But we, if you get to choose it, again, if you choose your music you can. You can choose other things in life. And it's all really readily available thanks again to the magnificent opportunities. The wealth of what's on the web. But with music you take that and I happen to be very important to me and so I think one of the good things that's happened is we have lots of good biographies. Identify ideas and history and other things that concern you with the lives and achievements of individuals. Goes against something of the grain and where we think, that, that, you know, in some academic circles the individual has been demoted and that what we're really just dealing with is social forces. And there are social forces behind the music of Johann Sebastian Bach or of Ludwig von Beethoven or Friedrich Chopin, those happen to be my mainstays. There are certainly social forces behind the Beatles. Or between, behind the early Joan Baez or Bob Dylan, others that are important to me, personally. Those are, so there you have biographies available. Who are these people? You get curious about the individuals who made history. It, there, there are you know, the lives of individuals can inspire us, can warn us, can give us, permission to seek. I, that for me is the great thing about the humanities, is that, that we do get biography. We also get biographies of great scientists. I think of Walter Isaacson's biographies of great scientists and those are, those are wonderful humanistic texts that he created for us. >> Absolutely. >> And they're many others that are out there. John Elliot Gardiner has a new biography of Bach. There always seems to be another book about Beethoven every year. And so whatever it is that inspires you. Even tragic figures like Van Gogh. Or William Blake, or many others. People who've, who led less than happy lives are wonderful to read, and, and to know. I think getting to know people in history is a wonderful experience. >> I just, not long ago, read, read Sam Gwynne's Empire of the Summer Moon, about the Comanches. Now, I'm, so that made me a fan of Sam Gwynne and now I'm reading his Stonewall Jackson and. >> Wow. >> I just love, I'm a biography junkie. >> Yeah. >> And I'm always surprised at how I can be inspired by both the triumphs and the mistakes of people in history. I think it lends great examples for all of us. >> On the matter of biography, if I could just add a little squib here. Autobiography is another great source. And, I, for me, one of the most important books I ever read was the first thing that was assigned to me in my first college course was The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And he talked a little bit about teaching and music. He was a music teacher. >> And he said he didn't really know anything about music but he knew he could stay one lesson ahead of his students. And I thought now, that's inspired, maybe I should be a teacher. There was my, my invitation. And I think reading autobiography can encourage students and people ta, in classes and, and people doing online courses. >> In writing their own. Write a memoir. What was it about that person that who just died who was important in your life. Write about him. What about the person who's, who's, whom you know has, had troubles in life and seems to be making, making, making things go well. What is it. It can be private. But I think that, that autobiography leads to memoir and this can be again for personal private consumption and it can turn into more than that. So that's another, again, something that of course scientists have written autobiographies. Again nothing special about the humanities here except it seems to have landed in our territory. >> [LAUGH] Yes. Exactly. >> [LAUGH] >> Well thank you so much again. >> Thank you.