This time of year, my young children forego their usual “live in the now” dispositions and, instead, spend quite a bit of time anticipating the future. From the sweet and scary delights of Halloween, to the lushness and abundance of Thanksgiving, to the bright lights and festivity of Christmas, the rush from fall into winter is a vivid blur of motion from one exciting event to another. Soon after New Year's Day comes the crash, then the long slog until summer. But every year, we all adapt to the monotony of weekdays and weekends by readjusting our expectations for what minor novelties and joys can be had on any given day.
In the midst of this year's holiday fever, I took a short trip to Chicago to attend a conference that brought together the staff and boards of humanities councils across the country. Like all conferences, this one was aimed at looking forward—in our case, asking, “What's next for the humanities?” Don Randel, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, was unabashedly upbeat in delivering the opening keynote with his first rule: “No whining.” He urged us away from relying only on quantifiable measures to justify the need for the humanities, such as economic development; away from the kind of partisanship and fretting over limited resources that might lead us to overlook broad alliances and open engagement. Instead, he reminded us of the good work the humanities have always helped us to do: exercise the mind, wrestle with the meaning of life, and create a nation worth defending.
This request, that we optimistically anticipate moving forward even as we ground the work we do in the practice of critical reflection, was not only the right way to start the conference, but also the right way for all of us—humanities practitioners and aficionados alike—to think about any personal and civic challenges ahead.
At Oregon Humanities, we spent some time in 2012 thinking forward, particularly through our Think & Drink series in Portland that explored at the future of social movements, food, artificial intelligence, and robotic warfare. In addition to having full video of all four programs on our website (thanks to series media sponsor KZME), we're pleased to feature two presenters from the series in these pages: an essay by Mott Greene and an interview with Robert Paarlberg.
In every Think & Drink conversation and each essay in this issue, thinking about the future involves asking and answering, “Where are we going, where have we been?” I like this run-on sentence—evocative of the eerie Joyce Carol Oates short story—as a visual. Look: there, where the two questions are awkwardly joined by a seemingly insubstantial comma, is the barest pause. That's where each of us is right now, in this moment, in between where we've been and where we're going. Whether in the midst of a giddy rush or a tedious slog, we are always in motion, moving forward.
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