Monday, May 11, 2009

Souter on Reading

On 9 March, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences hosted a panel discussion at George Washington University on "The Public Good: The Humanities in a Civil Society." The video of the entire event is available here, and the whole thing is well worth watching, but I wanted to mention two of Souter's answers to questions from the audience (these begin at around 1:25:00 in the video). In the first, he suggests that those concerned with expanding the reach of humanities in America today might do well to reach out to underprivileged communities and immigrant groups:

"I went to high school with a kid, who had arrived in the United States as a d.p. [displaced person] after World War Two, and in his reminiscence a few years ago, he was telling me about some of the people, in a town in New Hampshire, who most influenced him. And curiously enough, the first example he gave me was the example of the parents of his and later one of my schoolmates, who gave him a couple of very good novels to read, in English. That's a start. There are two intersecting constituencies which can be zeroed in on by people who are concerned about humanities education and humanities influence. And the further virtue that I think there may be in zeroing in on those constituencies is, that where the humanities really makes a difference, at least as I have seen it in my life, is not in the great moment of epiphany, but in the habit of mind that it inculcates. And if you want to form habits of mind, you form them, or at least your best bet to form them, is when the minds are young."

In the second answer I want to pinpoint, Souter responds to a question asking him to define his phrase "habit of mind" more clearly, and to distinguish them from "habits of heart." Souter: "Well I used the phrase 'habits of mind', so I'll step up to the plate on that. Again, it is not a term that I came here with a definition to throw out, but I can't help but begin the answer to your question with a recollection of some remarks I heard years ago from Howard Mumford Jones. And he basically took the view that most Harvard students are illiterate and committed to remaining illiterate. And he was sort of gently berating his audience about the way they spent their time. As I recall he sort of tried to analyze a day down in which there might be, I don't know, eighteen minutes free. And Jones said 'What should you do in the eighteen minutes?' And there was a pause, and he said 'You could READ A BOOK!' One of the habits of mind is as basic and simple as that, to find a book such a familiar thing, that if there is a moment, one can open it.

A second habit of mind, follows from opening enough of those books. It teaches a lesson which was emphasized over and over again by one of America's greatest judges, Learned Hand. It was the lesson which he said if he could have his way, he would have engraved over the door of every schoolhouse, every statehouse, every courthouse in the United States. And they were the words of Oliver Cromwell, which he used in a disputation with some of the Scottish Presbyterians. His words, in Greek, were, 'Consider that ye may be wrong.' One of the habits of mind, which characterizes the liberal arts, is that consideration. ... The habit of mind that opens the book, is sooner or later the mind that will learn Cromwell's lesson. One is a physical habit, and the other is a habit of judgment which is likely to follow from it."

All good lessons, I think, and well put.