The Humanities and Me:
Joseph O' Connor

‘Storytelling,’ wrote the American novelist Tobias Wolff, ‘is an escape from the prison of the self into the greatest adventure any human can have: to see the world through the eyes of another.’

That’s how I see the Humanities.

It’s the place where we tell our stories, the zone where the big questions are posed.

How are we to live together? How will we solve problems? How can we speak to each other, and what should we be talking about? Could we do things better? How did we get here? Where are we going now?

And it’s the place where the most beautiful and ennobling things we’ve ever made are treasured: our languages, poems, songs, images, the notion of a civilised society with laws that are fair, our curiosity about each other, our capacity for empathy. Which is another way of saying our memory.   

Beauty is oxygen. Without it we shrivel. Ireland was not meant to be a slum with a casino attached. We are a republic, a society, a mosaic of communities, and if there has been great failure in recent times there has also been profound and painfully garnered insight.

The Humanities is the place where we’re healed.

Indeed, had the Humanities been more valued in Ireland, the lie of the boom might never have gained purchase.  Because the Humanities teach us to think, to value, to look again.

Not to swallow the myth but to measure the evidence. Never to be cynical but to be ethically sceptical. Not to buy without asking the questions.

In the Humanities we are connected to the world, and to every person in it, in fact to every person who has ever lived and ever will.

Without the Humanities, my sons wouldn’t know that the black South African child to whom my wife is godmother would once have been a second-class citizen in the land of his birth.

Without the Humanities, my 18-year-old niece would know nothing of the brave women who fought all their lives so that she might one day have a vote.

Without the Humanities-based education I was blessed to receive, I would not be doing what I do now. My whole life might have been lived without realising there was something I could do, and do well.  

I would never have known the thrill of being in front of a classroom of people who want to tell their stories, and seeing that some of them have a gift, and knowing that they will never thrive unless they respect and love that gift, and that I’ve been given the extraordinary privilege of helping them do it.

And there will hours and days of failure. And there will be moments of frustration and self-doubt. But then there will be the moment when a student finds a voice she never knew she had and the world bursts into life like a fruit.

Without the Humanities, that moment wouldn’t matter.

The Humanities. There’s a clue in the name.

Published: 15 Apr 2015

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Joseph O’ Connor is the Frank McCourt Chair of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. He is also the author of eight novels: Cowboys and Indians (short-listed for the Whitbread Prize), Desperadoes, The Salesman, Inishowen, Star of the Sea, Redemption Falls, Ghost Light and The Thrill of it All, as well as two collections of short stories, True Believers and Where Have You Been?, and a number of bestselling works of non-fiction.