Rafika Merini, PhD

Rafika Merini

Title: Humanities Educator
Company: Buffalo State College
Location: Buffalo, New York, United States

I would like to begin this life narrative by referring to a famous public intellectual, Edward Said. I believe that his understanding of the mission of the humanities lays the groundwork for the kind of open-minded and compassionate spirit the humanities, at its best, aims to foster. He wrote that “The basic humanistic mission today, whether in music, literature, or any of the arts or the humanities, has to do with the preservation of difference without, at the same time, sinking into the desire to dominate.” (Culture and Imperialism, New York, Vintage, 1993, Print).

As it does appear that the influence of the public intellectual outside the academy is in a state of marked decline paralleling the diminishing interest in the humanities and the arts, it is critical that the public realizes the crucial importance of an ongoing dialogue and involvement with world literatures and cultures, as well as with world languages. A bit of good news (and I will get to more good news later on in this narrative), are that the so-called Generation Z thinks it is very important to understand other cultures and that has a great deal to do with  “preserving difference without the desire to dominate.” It also shows an awareness that culture is our saving grace in this modern world that won’t wait for us to adjust to its demands for speed and productivity. Culture imparts the know-how to resist the various sorts of conditioning one is subjected to throughout life. Along with other cultural activities, the humanities also encourage the acquisition of an understanding of the complexity of life, of the knowledge of right and wrong, and of self-knowledge. For instance, should someone try to put you in a box with the wrong questions, culture will enable you to dodge the bait without going on the attack or losing judgment. With humanistic imaginative compassion and a transnational sensibility or multiculturalism, one learns to experience with seriousness and depth true tragedy, as well as, true happiness. All of which harks back to Aristotle’s classical definition of happiness as an “activity in accordance with excellence.”

Here is, then, a list of questions asked and, at times, answered by the humanities:

What does it mean to be human?

What is the meaning of life?

What constitutes identity?

What is the good life?

So what?

Since life can be a parade that puts your heart in your mouth, perhaps Jacques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It got it right when he declared:

“All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances. And one man in this time plays many parts.”

Whether a stage or a parade, one can extend the metaphor to the hubris behind the stage or the parade, and the humanities’ creative impulse and stress on finding your legitimate place in the world combining excellence and humility since the humanities and the sciences both rely more on asking the right questions than on finding the right answers, something which often proves elusive. In addition, the humanities are often not averse to speaking truth to power, especially when it comes to the inhumanity of the powerful and their agents (one only needs to read Hawthorne or Kafka, among many others) to find out.

The humanities ask some big questions such as the above, even so, liberal arts graduates keep a cool head and will take any job that is offered to them upon graduation; they can and will do almost anything at entry level and with little previous training and advance quickly into higher level positions with some more training and experience. Especially if they had cross concentrations such as engineering and foreign languages or business and foreign languages or translation and interpreting skills development. Moreover, it has been observed that when the economy tanked a few years ago, humanities graduates still got most of the jobs available in part because they can write well and writing well is important in all professions. Due to their inquiring minds, they are less likely to crave instant gratification and to prefer to indulge in procrastination.

Humanities graduates readily engage in a positive manner not only with people different from themselves but also with issues of the present such as the family crisis, social estrangement or marginalization, urban blight and renewal, literary authority, the impact of technology and such other pressing issues. While trained to engage with the above in an objective manner, they have learned thanks to the practice of critical inquiry never to put forth anything that they cannot defend with good argumentation and valid data. In their attempts to recognize the other on his or her own terms, they know how to bring individual and collective disparate histories into dialogue with one another and to explore the possibilities for, and impediments to authentic mutual recognition.

As for self-knowledge, the humanities help to provide their practitioners with the appropriate tools to “recognize” a given situation or reaction (such as myths and symbols) thus avoiding the pervasive anxiety fostered by the unknown, the opaque and the unknowable. The humanities, including film, explore issues that matter to everyone and shed light on questions such as why love can be compromised by the demands of tradition, how authoritarian injustice can be resisted, how popular culture and mediatized personalities can alter behaviors for the better and for the worse, and how the world can be made to appear more intelligible.

In my own personal experience, I can still vividly recall the enormous impact that such novels as Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita had on me as a teenager. As a child, the various folktales and the Arabian Nights Tales brought endless enchantment with their marvelous adventures only barely equaled by my beautiful art books featuring the adventures of famous world explorers. As a result, that sense of wonder is still with me today, many decades later. A sense of the sublime also grew as I became more and more involved with teaching the humanities and modern and classical languages. All of these discoveries not only enhanced my spiritual sense of wonder at the world, it helped me to accept others different from me and to recognize in them our common flawed and to lean into the metaphor, still breathtakingly beautiful parade of humanity.

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