Looking for an Honest Man: Reflections of an Unlicensed Humanist

38th Annual Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities, 21 May 2009.


It is true that I have long been devoted to liberal education, and along with my wife, Amy Kass, and a few other colleagues at the University of Chicago, I helped found a successful common core humanities course, “Human Being and Citizen,” as well as an unusual B.A. program, “Fundamentals: Issues and Texts,” that emphasizes basic human questions pursued through the intensive study of classic texts. I have also raised high the oft-abandoned banner of humanistic inquiry, and have tried in my teaching and writing to show its indispensable value for living thoughtfully and choosing wisely in our hyper-technological age. Finally, perhaps because I am an unlicensed humanist, I have pursued the humanities for an old-fashioned purpose in an old-fashioned way: I have sought wisdom about the meaning of our humanity, largely through teaching and studying the great works of wiser and nobler human beings, who have bequeathed to us their profound accounts of the human condition.

This lecture is, in part, an attempt to make sense of my adopted career as unlicensed humanist. I offer it not as an apologia pro vita mea, but rather in the belief that my own intellectual journey is of more than idiosyncratic interest. Although the path I have followed is surely peculiar, the quest for my humanity is a search for what we all have in common. The point is not what I have learned, but rather what I have learned and, therefore, what anyone can learn with and through the humanities—and why it matters. This lecture is, most of all, my expression of gratitude to the National Endowment for the Humanities and, especially, to the Republic of Letters for which it stands.

National Endowment for the Humanities