Vendler’s 30-minute speech, entitled “The Ocean, The Bird, and The Scholar,” was the reprise of a speech she gave last year in Washington D.C. upon receiving the 2004 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Jefferson Lecture award.
The Jefferson Lecture is the highest honor the United States government bestows for individual achievement in the humanities.
University President Lawrence H. Summers, Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby and NEH chairman Bruce Cole were among the crowd who filled Fong Auditorium to hear Vendler’s speech.
Using three Wallace Stevens poems throughout her talk, Vendler argued that “the arts present the whole uncensored human person as no other branch of human accomplishment does,” and therefore deserve a more strong focus in American academics.
“I want to propose that the humanities should take, as their central objects of study, not the texts of historians or philosophers, but the products of aesthetic endeavor—architecture, art, dance, music, literature, theater, and so on,” Vendler said.
“After all, it is by their arts that cultures are principally remembered,” she added.
Afterward, the audience expressed enthusiasm for Vendler’s message.
“I thought it was a splendid, powerful, and persuasive lecture that gives her colleagues much to think about as the faculty works on the curriculum, and that raises questions about education in America more broadly,” Summers said.
Jennie K. Hann ‘05, an English concentrator, said that she was pleased to see Vendler arguing for a more prominent role for the arts in U.S. culture.
“It was something that had been needed for a long time. I’m glad that she, as a prominent professor, took a controversial stand,” Haan said.
Vendler concluded her talk with emphasis on the relationship between individuals and art.
“Just as art is only half itself without us—its audience, its analysts, its scholars—so we are only half ourselves without it,” she said.