Thursday, May 23, 2013

Remarks to the Dictionary Society of North America, May 23, 2013

I’m pleased to welcome the members of the Dictionary Society of North America to the University of Georgia and to say a few words of exhortation as you prepare for your 19th biennial meeting.  My field is literary studies, and though I have used dictionaries all my life, in paper and digital form, I can’t claim to know a lot about how they are put together and the thinking that lies behind them.  I do think of dictionaries as an original form of Big Data (with capital letters), a linguistic and cultural archive of information about how we think and talk and feel that contains the deepest substance and meanings of our civilizations.  Dictionaries are (and maybe this is an old-fashioned concept) archives of the most important sort. 

Many of you may think of yourselves as humanists, some of you may be social scientists, and some of you may be in other fields entirely, such as computing, but I think of all of you as humanists.  The process of putting together a dictionary is a fundamentally humanistic one because language is a basic feature of what it means to be human.

It is almost a hackneyed cliché these days to say that we are in a state of fundamental change.  I think that the change happening right now is more sweeping and fundamental than any of us realize.  Lexicographers and those who conceptualize and construct and talk about dictionaries face the same challenges that the humanities at large are facing: how is change going to change us?  How will digital technology transform us?  Are the boundaries by which we’ve traditionally defined ourselves becoming more destructive than creative?  How are constantly shifting cultural and national and linguistic and ideological boundaries going to affect what we as humanists, what you as dictionary makers, do? 

We can’t sit back and be passive as change happens. We have to take charge. We have to control the process of change.  Once we come out on the other side of whatever place it is we are in right now, however unfamiliar the new territory and its terrains and disciplines may be, we have to make certain that the values that have been important to humanistic studies since their beginnings survive.

Thank you for what you do.  And with that, I hope you will have a pleasant and productive conference here at the University of Georgia, where spring is fast becoming summer, that time of year when above all else air conditioners are king.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Comments for the Lamar Dodd School of Art Graduation, May 9, 2013

I am pleased to be here to offer congratulations and best wishes to those of you who are marking your graduation today from the University of Georgia with a degree from the Lamar Dodd School of Art.  You’ve worked hard, you have much to be proud of, you ought to feel good.  I extend these wishes to your friends, your parents and spouses and partners and special others, and to everyone in general, because at the end of the year everyone deserves a hug and congratulations.

I have two very brief but important imperatives for you today.  First, use your love of art, your creative and scholarly abilities, to do good in the world.  Don’t go back to your studio or office after this ceremony and close the door.  You haven’t earned the right to do that.  What you have earned the right to do is to use your education and your training and talent to go out and improve your society, serve your fellow human being, and do good for this planet.  This is what art is for—it serves the higher needs of humankind.  And humankind, in this day and age, really needs some help. 

Second, take every opportunity you can find to promote--among your friends, your family, the people you work with, and anyone else you happen to run into--the value of the arts.  A recent report from the Wallace Foundation found three intrinsic benefits of the arts:  one is pleasure and captivation.  A second is personal growth “such as enhanced empathy for other people and cultures, powers of observation, and understanding of the world”—these “cultivate the kinds of citizens desired in a pluralistic society.”  The third benefit is the sense of “communal identity” that comes from thinking and talking about the arts, the “expression of common values and community identity” that come from artworks that commemorate events important to individual, group, or national experiences.  And this report does not even begin to touch on the economic values of the arts, or their impact in providing a meaningful quality of life in our community.  Here’s my report to you: The arts are not a luxury, a convenience, or a casual pastime.  They’re an essential part of our daily lives, of our private selves, of what it means to be human and civilized.  Be sure to share that message.

Congratulations, and my best wishes to you all.