UT's Pauline Strong seeks keys to humanity

8:44 p.m Saturday, April 9, 2011 Arts

In a moment of reflection, Pauline Turner Strong plays a Bach prelude on the piano and considers the subtle ways music has enriched her life. It's not just the joy of song, the pleasant patterns in the notes. It's what music has taught her about collaboration, about teaching, about perspective.

Strong is not a musician. She is an academic, an expert in historical anthropology and gender studies, most visible these past two years as the director of the Humanities Institute at the University of Texas. But when she touches the piano keys at her home in North Austin, Strong feels chords that connect her to story and meaning in her life.

"When I was in high school in Denver, I was the pianist for an Air Force-based choir. A professional job," says Strong, smiling softly at the memory. She was 16 then, in 1969. "We did a mix of everything: musical numbers like 'Hello, Dolly,' sacred songs, and we always did a medley of military anthems as well. I wore this red, white and blue miniskirt dress while I was doing it."

The Vietnam War was raging in 1969, 1970. America was in turmoil. The girl in the star-spangled dress felt the moral push-and-pull of the times.

"It was difficult for me because I was against the war — and at the same time, I was playing piano for a military organization," says Strong. "Many of the young men in that choir, as far as I could tell, were not for the war either. ... I was ambivalent about the job."

Yet Strong worked with the choir for two years. She got to know the soldiers well, including one who asked her to write a letter in support of his bid to be classified a conscientious objector. She became an accompanist in the broadest sense, understanding men in relation to harmony, to obligation, to conscience. Strong learned she could hate the war and still love the people.

"I learned a lot from the experience. ... It challenged me," she says, pausing a long time to consider it. "Maybe it was in the learning about things being complex, about not coming to fast and easy judgments about people, because the atmosphere was so polarized."

As a scholar, Pauline Strong is hesitant to generalize. "I have an analytic mind. I stand back. I'm suspicious of easy certainties," she'll often say. "I'm suspicious of any truth, any claim to truth." Yet it's tempting to conclude her teenage experience in Colorado, at the piano, kindled Strong's interest in the humanities — and the value of our communal quest to know what it is to be human, to understand the complexity of that experience.

Breadth

As director of the UT Humanities Institute (see box, right), Strong is something of a Johnny Appleseed — earnestly scattering seeds of intellectual insight throughout Austin. She believes in the Socratic axiom: "The unexamined life is not worth living." It guides her larger quest to explain the social, philosophical and political value of the humanities in the complex world of the 21st century.

"I do agree that examining who we are and being intentional about what we become is the essence of being human," says Strong, an associate professor who has taught at UT since 1993 and was honored as the university's outstanding graduate instructor in 2006. "The humanities really does value questioning. I think the humanities is about broadening horizons, broadening perspectives, hearing other voices, understanding one's position in the world."

Strong first joined the Humanities Institute as assistant director in 2006, in its fifth year of existence. When director and founder Evan Carton stepped down in 2008, she was the natural choice to extend the institutional mission to "build civic and intellectual community — within, across and beyond the university's walls — by bringing people together to explore issues and ideas that matter."

Purposeful, high-strung, with ash-red hair, Strong is a focused intellectual who prefers to use the formal "one" (not "you") in casual conversation. Yet her curiosity is airy, birdlike. Clearly, she's into Bach: patterns, variations. Jazz, too. But she's also into Indians, evidenced by the drums and rattles that rest atop her piano, near the classical sheet music. It's a safe bet Strong is the only member of the UT faculty who herded sheep in Navajo pueblos, cared for babies on cradle boards.

Strong is fascinated by the study of sports and society. She's devoted years of research to the history of the Campfire Girls. She's deeply interested in Asian philosophy, Eastern religions, Buddhism. As a philosophy major at Colorado College, she was fascinated by German existential philosopher Martin Heidegger and dove deeply into "the probing questions of what it is to be human, what it is to be ethical, and how the answers to those questions vary in various belief systems."

"I am a historical anthropologist," says Strong, who earned her doctorate in anthropology at the University of Chicago, "so I'm interested in both the perspectives you get from the past as well as the perspective you get looking at other cultures."

Strong's scholarly interest in American Indians is broad, eclectic. She's an expert on the hybridization of Indians, as well as the "Hollywood Indian." She once delivered a keynote address on the topic of part-time Austinite Terrence Malick's "The New World," commending the quiet, visceral power with which the 2005 film depicted "the mindset of people who were experiencing (a) radical invasion of their world." Strong expanded her doctoral dissertation into the book "Captive Selves, Captivating Others: The Politics and Poetics of Colonial American Captivity Narratives."

"The phenomenon of stories of whites being captured by Indians is central to American literature, central to an American identity," says Strong. "Being captured by Indians is a story we tell over and over again. It's in 'The Searchers,' it's in 'Dances with Wolves,' it is in James Fenimore Cooper. It's an American fantasy, being captured by Indians, a fear and a fantasy. And folklore as well."

Interesting, says Strong, how Anglo Americans opposed themselves so strongly to Indians: we're not savages; we're not pagans. Yet at the same time, they adopted certain Indian ways of being (such as wilderness skills) that aided their desire to shed their European identity.

Strong's anthropological interest in sports is every bit as eclectic. She's deeply interested in the sociology of sports, sports and play, the notion of athlete as role model, the sports fan.

"We hunger to be a part of communities," says Strong. "So being a fan is part of being a community. Attending a football game is attending a large ritual; it has all the dimensions of a ritual. Participating vicariously in a game through TV, radio or online is a way of being a community. Benedict Anderson has this notion of 'imagined communities' that developed with newspapers, right? I think being a sports fan can be part of an imagined community."

Strong suggests that societal emphasis on sports is not unique to American culture or to this moment in time. She references lacrosse, and its relation to the indigenous peoples of the Eastern woodlands.

"For the Iroquois, lacrosse was called 'The Younger Brother of War.' It was thought to be a form of rivalry, a way of expressing competition, and strength and courage. The same skills one uses in war; the same values one expresses in war. But doing it through a game, a game that had sacred dimensions to it, but something that is short of war.

"This kind of use of sports is found in many cultures — as substitute for war, or preparation for war. There's often a relationship between sports and war."

War, violence

\u2013 and the humanities

Each year, the Humanities Institute designates a social theme, an intellectual focal point relevant to the issues of our time. This year's theme: "War, Violence and the Humanities."

The story of Pauline Strong's life in 1969, 1970 — the star-spangled girl at the piano, wrestling with moral issues related to war and violence — whispers to her again in 2011. Such is the way, with the humanities. In troubled times, the humanities offer a place of refuge, a place of meaning.

"I think it's important to have places where one finds refuge — we all need to take a hot bath every so often or go to the top of a mountain or withdraw into a book or watch a film," Strong remarked early in her tenure as director. "Sometimes those activities act as balms. Other times, they act as inspirations, they act as goads, they provoke us. And I think it's the mission of the humanities to provoke as it is to comfort."

Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11," holds a visiting professorship with the Humanities Institute this academic year. In faculty seminars, in public forums, Wright has led discussions about al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, the complexity of the military endeavor in Afghanistan, upheaval in Egypt and Tunisia.

The tone of his remarks, like that of his famous book, is perfectly suited to the realm of the humanities. He avoids generalization, seeks meaning through the pursuit of a broader perspective.

"Mass thinking is a phenomenon of any society," Wright said at a Humanities Institute discussion at Avaya Auditorium in February, responding to a guest in the audience who suggested that moral certitude — presented in the context of weapons of mass destruction and the bombing of Baghdad — was a uniquely American characteristic. "The more I look into religious movements and political movements, the more humble I become in the sense that we're all susceptible to being led into irrational behavior because of things that oftentimes (reflect) our finest qualities."

During a discussion about terrorism at a faculty seminar earlier in the day, Wright talked about the growing influence of the terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki — "an American who can speak English," Wright reminded the professors, "and thus (able) to reach Muslims that don't speak English." In a climatic moment, English professor Barbara Harlow asked Wright if he would support a U.S.-sanctioned assassination strike against al-Awlaki.

"Yes ... although I'm a conscientious objector," said Wright. "He's using his persuasiveness to condone murder and suicide. ... It's clear that al-Awlaki is our enemy, and it's clear he wants to wage war."

Although she hadn't raised a question during the 90-minute discussion, Strong suddenly jumped in — wondering aloud that U.S.-sanctioned assassination might run against the prevailing logic of Wright's famous book, which suggests acts of violence, conducted hastily, without respect to long-term consequences, beget only more violence.

Wright nodded in respect. A valid point, he said. And these are the difficult questions we face in the age of terrorism, once we venture deeply into "this morally complex territory."

No simple truths. No easy answers. Pauline Strong knows the landscape well.

bbuchholz@statesman.com. 912-2967.

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