The Curious Hu-Manatees

November 16, 2011
The Harbor in St. Petersburg, FL

Beware of the hu-manatees in St. Petersburg, Florida. Photo by Jessica Becker.

Until about five years ago, 1000 people a day relocated from somewhere else to live in Florida. I arrived in St. Petersburg Florida for a conference organized around the over-arching theme of re-imagining the American Dream just as the world took note that global population has reached 7 billion. The former director of the Florida Humanities Council welcomed us to St. Pete’s with a semantics joke: In her state, where people have always come to reinvent themselves and live out their American dreams, she was sometimes called the director of the Florida Manatee Council.

The annual conference gathered together people from the 56 humanities councils located in the U.S. states and territories, all of which receive funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.  As the current economic and cultural climate requires that we all use full-strength creativity to re-imagine our life here on earth, and public funding for the humanities becomes less certain, I wondered if it wouldn’t be a good idea to team up with the dolphins and palm trees and manatees to explain the value we bring to the world.

After three days of deliberate and truly stimulating conversation about what, exactly, this American Dream notion means to each of us, as well as what role the public humanities play in the future of our states, the country, and the planet, I remembered why we are importantly not staffing sea animals and tropical plants as colleagues.

The humanities are about being human. They are everything about being human. How we as humans make sense of our place on earth, as one of 7 billion other humans, or as one of millions who have chosen or found ourselves in Florida or Wisconsin or wherever. And the way we each think about identity, responsibility, opportunity, citizenship, destiny, and our dreams. As humans, we are curious creatures and therefore are humanists by nature. We engage in the humanities as we wonder about stuff, explore the world, and talk about it with others. And the more of us on the planet there are, the more curious minds will be ruminating on this wild and interesting life and trying to make meaning of it.

At this particular point in history, money for public humanities projects is scarce. Public humanities projects, such as museum exhibitions, the collection of oral histories, the publication of reflective historical accounts, the opportunities for people to gather to read, write, and think together, those projects are harder to fund. It makes me sad. And it is a major assault on my own personal American Dream: that we as Americans enjoy public education, cultural sharing, and civic debate. But I am still hopeful that human curiosity and creativity will overcome silly things like money problems.

The day before I returned to Wisconsin, I sat in the harbor looking out at the Gulf. I was surprised to see a single dolphin swimming very close to my feet, which were dangling from the cement shoreline. I think of dolphins as hanging out in pods, not alone. This particular dolphin, I imagined, was a curious one. He was checking things out. A budding humanist, perhaps, exploring and looking for meaning? In Florida, it seems, the manatees and dolphins are part of the story.

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs at the Wisconsin Humanities Council