As part of Education Week 2016, humanities professors spoke in three distinct series to encourage visitors to continue learning, reading and building their faith.
PROVO, Utah (Aug 23, 2016)—Precipitating the launch of every new school year, men and women from around the country gather to BYU for a single week of concentrated study: Education Week. This year the College of Humanities hosted three lectures series: Lifelong Language Learning, Lifelong Reading and Humanities and Belief. Though many spoke, here’s a sampling of what the college’s professors had to share.
“The World’s Greatest Movies You Have Never Heard Of” by Chip Oscarson
“Why do you watch movies?” It’s a simple question, one that Chip Oscarson, associate professor of comparative arts and letters, likes to ask his film students. He posed the same question to his Education Week listeners, who gave answers as varied as their points of origin. They ranged from the humorous (“It’s faster than reading a book” or “It’s cheaper than buying a plane ticket”) to the reflective (“To escape” or “To see how someone else thinks”).
“We start with entertainment, and that [reason] is really important,” Oscarson said. “That’s a good thing and a bad thing. There is something very limiting if it remains at only entertainment.” He stressed that film can be used for more than just entertainment if we take the time to challenge ourselves.
To make his point, Oscarson referred to the 13th Article of Faith, especially the part that states, “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”
Oscarson explained, “Too often when we think about media, we think about good and bad in terms of what it doesn’t have.” That is, do we consider a movie good simply if it doesn’t contain foul language or sexuality? Or do we consider its contents, such as the narrative, themes and techniques? Do we take the time to judge the various elements and how they work together, or do we take a checklist to it?
Quoting Travis Anderson, Oscarson offered this elaboration of Paul and Joseph Smith’s understanding of the word virtuous: “In every case for the Greeks, virtue . . . referred not just to a lack of bad qualities, but to an abundance of good ones – to a combination of all those qualities and attributes which together would constitute a praiseworthy and exemplary life.” With that understanding, Oscarson encouraged his audience to follow the Lord’s command to seek out the virtuous in film.
“Shakespeare’s Lessons in Lifelong Reading” by Nancy Christiansen
The writings of Shakespeare were meant not only to entertain, but also to educate. In her Education Week lecture, associate professor of English Nancy Christiansen presented how Shakespeare sought to teach his audience to be better readers.
Christiansen illustrated this point using Othello. She explained, “Shakespeare draws attention to the overriding narratives people live their lives by, showing the consequences, and thereby arguing for the kind of story – the world view – he believes is the most realistic and, as a result, the most efficacious.”
He contrasts, for example, Othello, Iago and the Duke of Venice. “Othello is the ultimate romantic idealist,” she said. “His personal value comes from living out the epic romance, wherein the adventurous, physically and morally superior hero wins public renown, high status and the fairest maiden who lives only for him.” Christiansen went on to describe how this perception of reality is too simplistic and makes Othello susceptible to the lies of the devious Iago, a character in Othello known for his manipulations and pragmatic outlook. This overly simplistic world view would also encourage the confusion that would lead to Othello’s suicide and his murder of Desdemona.
The outlook that Iago demonstrates throughout the play is that of the ultimate pragmatist. Christiansen explained “Iago [is] the master manipulator. To get what he wants, Iago frames characters by weaving stories about them.” Iago is the opposite of Othello. He views all moral code as relative and believes he can manipulate all circumstances to his own benefit without any retribution. In this, Iago falls prey to stereotypes and his vision is clouded by the categories he assigns to others.
“The Duke is the ideal reader in this play,” Christiansen said. “His philosophy is Christian humanism and his overriding narrative is the realistic comedy.” Christiansen explained that Christian humanism and the realistic comedy acknowledge a complex reality made up of both the ideal and the concrete embodiment, the general and particular, the categorical and individual, and so forth. This more complex and complete picture enables the Duke to consider all sides of an issue and to gather and weigh evidence in order to come to highly probable conclusions. His approach characterizes people not as stereotypes, but as complex characters. The resulting humanity and wisdom of the Duke helps him to build healthy relationships and illustrates the superiority of his overriding narrative frame.
Christiansen concluded by saying that in this play Shakespeare is asking his audiences to examine “the stories they tell themselves and read their lives by, since these stories have behavioral consequences that create their characters and ultimately their own comic or tragic lives.”
“Faith and the Imagination: Lessons from the Humanities for Latter-day Saints” by George Handley
Faith and intellect are not necessarily enemies but are in fact important companions in a consecrated life,” explained George Handley, associate dean of the College of Humanities. In his lecture, Handley wanted to show how carefully directing how our minds wonder could be beneficial and how it differed from simply letting our minds wander during important spiritual experiences. To wonder, he explained, is to have “thoughtful, intentional self reflection” which can help us to deepen our spiritual experiences to the maximum level of personal revelation.
Handley continued by explaining the powerful aid our imaginations can give us to receive revelation, “Although momentarily distracting us from what is in front of us, our imagination has the capacity to teach us to be fully present and fully appreciative of the gifts of the moment if we can learn to harness and discipline its energies.”
The imagination is what allows the Lord to communicate novel information to us that we would not be able to understand otherwise. It opens a creative dialogue between our brain and the revelation we can receive. This is especially helpful, Handley said, when reading the scriptures, so the reader can better “liken” the principles taught there by using imaginative power to see the application in their life.
An understanding and love for the humanities can help us to expand our worldview. Handley referenced author Marilynne Robinson and her idea of a “small reality” where each person is only concerned with their own perception of life. By studying the humanities and allowing our minds to wonder, our ability to understand the lives of others is more complete and less of a series of snap judgments. This deep acceptance increases our perception of the worth of souls and allows us to see others as our Heavenly Father sees them. “Love of truth,” Handley states, “I think, has to be greater than fear of error just as love has to be greater than fear of our enemies. It seems to me that this places us in a position of openness to others and to ideas while remaining anchored by our covenant in Christ.”