What We Do, Who We Are

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by Susan MacDonald Hatem, Associate Director

"That’s a lie!"
Three times this spring one of the presenters in our speaker’s bureau faced people in his audiences who fundamentally disagreed with his basic premise. And said so. At one program loudly, mid-presentation. The speaker did exactly what he should: stayed calm, shared his knowledge on the topic, and took questions, but tried not to let those who came with their own agenda hijack the event. Other audience members spoke up to say they came to hear the New Hampshire Humanities presenter and asked the shouters to be quiet and listen. The mood was tense, but everyone stayed.

Afterward, people wrote:
"[This program] provided information that I craved! Thank you so very much."
"Keep speaking – more people need to know what is true. Education is so important."

New Hampshire Humanities promotes lifelong learning, reflection and civic engagement by providing opportunities for people to respectfully listen to and gain insight from one another. Our programs are offered by scholars of history, literature, philosophy, and other humanities disciplines who have extensive knowledge of their subject matter. They enjoy sharing that knowledge with an interested public, whether the topic is New England stone walls, why and how to collect family stories, New Hampshire Governor John Winant’s role in World War II – or the fundamentals of Islam, the program that has lately drawn such heat. New Hampshire audiences are generally thrilled with the opportunity to learn something new, especially about our state and region.

Why not just stick to local culture then? Avoid the hecklers altogether?

The challenges of our day are wide-ranging and complex: how to counter acts of unspeakable violence and face down militaristic tyrants; how to pay for health care, ensure clean air and water, maintain safe roads and bridges, how to educate our children, prevent and treat addiction, take care of our elders; how to keep up with technology and grow our businesses. Contentious debates over these issues demonstrate how deeply people care about our own and our government’s ethical and constitutional responsibilities and the manner in which they are carried out. The tension in our national climate can be felt here, in small towns as well as cities, in libraries as well as political forums.

That is exactly why New Hampshire Humanities continues to do what it does. Our nation is a living, dynamic experiment. Its remarkable strength and flexibility depends on its citizens’ commitment to working together. We need the new knowledge, fresh perspectives, trust, and respect that come from constructive engagement with one another. When knowledge of history informs the present, when literature and film and storytelling put us in other people’s shoes, when questions engender deeper questions, challenging pre-conceived notions and surmounting shouted epithets, we learn to discern, to empathize, to grow.

New Hampshire Humanities programs encourage the respectful exchange of ideas. The presenters are scholars, not activists for particular political or religious groups or advocates for specific change or consensus. Often, these free public programs serve as introductions to cultures, stories, and ideas that are new to attendees. They offer opportunities to practice the skills of asking questions, listening, and talking to one another.

Not every program that New Hampshire Humanities sponsors is directly relevant to current events. None is meant to solve the world’s problems. But through the humanities, what is relevant reveals itself. Creative solutions surface. Relationships thrive. We learn to ask and try to answer the essential question: who we are. That’s good to ask as individuals, and as a nation.

Find upcoming New Hampshire Humanities programs using our searchable calendar at www.nhhumanities.org/event-calendar.