Ideas that Illuminate

January 14, 2019

Here on the east coast, January can seem like the darkest time of year. After packing away the lights of the December holidays—menorahs, kinaras, Christmas decorations, and more—several cold and dark weeks still lie ahead. Many of us look forward to the return of spring not only for warmer weather, but for the longer hours of daylight the season brings.

Light is an ancient metaphor for understanding, incorporated into Yale’s motto—lux et veritas, light and truth. The humanities—a diverse group of related disciplines—use many approaches to illuminate our world. Literature, art, music, and languages connect us to other people and cultures. Philosophy and religion ask questions about being and belief. History excavates forgotten stories and informs our view of current challenges. Research and discovery in the humanities often bridge other disciplines, such as recent Yale scholarship that suggests cultural practices may have played a role in human evolution. By examining how we worship, celebrate, grieve, and find meaning, the humanities help us better understand our world and our place in it.

A cornerstone of our academic strategy, the humanities have a long, rich history at Yale. We are making a major investment in these disciplines because we believe they are vital to our university and to our shared future. The renovation of the Hall of Graduate Studies—a.k.a. 320 York—will bring sixteen departments and programs under one roof when it opens in 2020. Shared common and meeting spaces, a coffee shop, and graduate student offices are designed to encourage interaction. This new “home for the humanities” will support our scholars in studying the great richness and diversity of human experience.

The humanities are a central part of a Yale College education. In courses on American urban architecture, the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, the history of African colonialism, and “Art and Myth in Greek Antiquity,” which incorporates visits to the Yale University Art Gallery, and many others, students sharpen their analytical skills and learn to think critically about ideas, texts, events, and more. History remains one of the top three majors for the Class of 2019, with 114 students writing senior essays in history. And our faculty inspire our students with their pioneering scholarship; in the past year, Yale historians have published significant books on Iran, Frederick Douglass, authoritarianism, strategic theory, and the antebellum Congress.

Technology cannot replace human creativity and ingenuity, but it can provide useful new tools. In the fall, the new Franke Family Digital Humanities Laboratory (DHLab) opened in Sterling Memorial Library. Last spring, DHLab staff—all of whom have backgrounds in the humanities—helped students in “New Orleans in the American Imaginary,” a course taught by Professors Joseph Fischel and Crystal Feimster, create a “digital atlas” for their final project using GIS technology. Last fall, students in Anastasia Eccles’s course on Jane Austen and Walter Scott visited the lab to learn how text mining and network analysis could complement their close readings of Ivanhoe and Mansfield Park. Many projects are receiving support, including one to document cultural heritage sites in Syria and another to facilitate access to thousands of testimonies from Holocaust survivors.

The humanities continue to resonate because they ask vital questions about who we are and what our lives mean. And at Yale, the humanities continue to thrive because of the exciting work our students, faculty, and staff undertake. If you are a humanities student or scholar at Yale, I invite you to email me at with stories about your illuminating scholarship and teaching. I look forward to hearing from you.