The Richest Part of Our Collective Lives

By Dean J. Scott Miller

Welcome to the special 50th anniversary issue of Humanities. The College of Humanities was officially born on June 1, 1965; now, half a century later, it embodies eight departments, ten centers, dozens of major and minor programs, and hundreds of courses touching the academic life of nearly every BYU student. We represent a global network of more than 30,000 alumni who practice the humanities in a dazzling variety of vocations and avocations. This celebratory issue of the magazine focuses on the humans of the humanities; we hope this collection of 50 individuals from a broad spectrum of backgrounds will bring a new dimension to your perception of the college. Given the theme, and my inaugural status as dean, it seems fitting to offer you my own simple profile by way of introduction.

I grew up in a small town with somewhat limited access to the humanities. Thanks to my parents’ influence, however, our home life was alive with music, reading, language, art, and even poetry (my grandfather wrote folk verse that he copied and left on doorsteps like unwanted zucchini). We rarely discussed the role the humanities played in our lives; their immense private and public value was a given. I do recall one brief discussion, however: my father turned to me during intermission at a Brahms symphony performance and said, “When I hear music like that I feel like I can do anything!” His simple enthusiasm underscored the central and inspiring, if unsung, part the humanities played in our family.

Years later I showed up in the BYU College of Humanities as a post-mission language student, just as the college celebrated its 15th anniversary. I was an engineering major at the time, but as part of my general education I signed up for an honors literature course. My contemporary notebooks stand in interesting contrast: my engineering course notes are very terse, while my literature notes are peppered with boxes, underscoring, and marginalia with questions, thoughts, and observations that reveal how engaged I was during our discussions of Homer, Goethe, Tolstoy, and others. That engagement, and International Cinema films, had such a strong impact on me that I soon changed my major, and life course, based on faith in the passion my professors showed for their disciplines. My love for, and definition of, language expanded as I learned new tongues, made new friends, and observed that the humanities can liberate us from the confines of our own limited experiences. I came to value the role dialogue plays in bridging the wide chasm of human difference, and, in the middle of a cold war’s chill, I saw warmth and hope in humane, multilingual conversation.

That hope and sense of purpose propelled me forward to universities in Japan, Princeton (where I met and married my wife), and England, to eventually settle into a faculty slot at a liberal arts college in upstate New York. Six years later I was back at BYU, teaching as I had once been taught. But my training had not prepared me for the remarkable conversations that routinely happen in classrooms here, discussions of not only what it means to be human but also how our humanity relates to God. And as my wife and I created our home together, the humanities have filled our lives with richness and meaning as well. In other words, I practice the humanities at work and at home.

During our first college convocation, in May 1966, Gerrit de Jong Jr., professor of Portuguese and namesake of the concert hall, delivered the faculty address to graduates. He concluded his remarks with the following words: “Be a living example, not just a theoretical advocate, of enduring human values. Hold high the torch. Act, not just talk, as one who has discovered some of the best of man’s thoughts and creations.”

In this issue you will find examples of people who have discovered some of the best of human thought and creativity and whose lives advocate enduring human values. They are holding high the torch, offering humane illumination, as the BYU mission statement declares, to “a world we wish to improve.” I am convinced that the humanities are some of the richest components of our collective lives, perhaps the primary means we have to reach out, find one another, and work together to improve our world.