Peter Gilbert


Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

For commentaries from Peter before April 2013, visit the VPR Archive.

During this school year, many students will have the opportunity to shadow adults at their work for a day. When Anita Stern was in elementary school in 1963, her class took part in a job-shadowing day. Anita told her teacher that when she grew up, she wanted to be a poet. But no one knew a nearby poet she could shadow. And so, she told me, she wrote a letter to Robert Frost. Only she was a few months too late; he had died in January of that year.

In the fall of 1813, John James Audubon, the great ornithologist and painter, witnessed passenger pigeons flying overhead for three days; he estimated that at times more than 300 million pigeons flew by every hour. “The light of noon-day,” he wrote, “was obscured as by an eclipse …” He was stunned by the beauty of the aerial twists and turns when a hawk took after them.

Gilbert: Move-In Day

Aug 18, 2014

Our daughter is headed off to college this fall. She recently received an email from a dean, which she forwarded to her mother and me. It deals with where she’ll be living, her various advisors, and, in a “closing note,” “Move-in Day.”

In one of the best books I’ve ever read, The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell wrote, “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends.” And yet, I would add, wars continue.

Fussell’s observation comes to mind because we are now at a confluence of war-related anniversaries and incidents that are ironically and tragically connected.

When we think about the Civil War, we may think of the uniforms made familiar through re-enactors, movies, paintings, even some old black and white photos. We may think of political giants and charismatic generals; of disease and primitive medical care; of a soldier writing letters home, or fighting in battle. But typically we don’t make the connection between people’s experiences in that war and what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

Gilbert: State Mottos

Jul 11, 2014

I learned recently that North Carolina’s state motto, translated from the Latin, is,“To be, rather than to seem.”

Oh my! A good sentiment, but the motto seems to have something of an edge to it! Then I learned that North Carolinians sometimes describe their state, with tongue-in-cheek pride, as “a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit.” Those mountains would be Virginia and South Carolina.

For an old rock climber like me, there’s no place in this country more beautiful, more sacred, than Yosemite Valley, with its soaring cliffs of granite. Well, it was a hundred and fifty years ago today that President Lincoln signed a law preserving it and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove forever. It was the first time the federal government had set aside land for preservation and public use.

Two summers ago, after my wife dropped our daughter and me off in Yosemite National Park to go hiking, the car needed gas, badly. She told me later, with great excitement, that she stopped at a gas mart just outside the park, filled up, went inside, and noticed a bunch of framed newspaper and magazine articles on the wall raving about the minimart’s snack counter, its fabulous food, and celebrated chef. Yes, chef!

She said the menu looked good, and decided to give it a try. She ordered Ahi Sashimi, served with seaweed salad and sushi rice. She said it was superb.

I’ve been struck by how many books have been published recently that present history through objects. The first I came across was A History of the World in 100 Objects, all drawn from the British Museum. Note it says a history, not the history, because focusing on different objects might produce a different history.

The sound of a massive avalanche of snow – the feel of it - is terrifying. And unforgettable. I keep thinking of the recent avalanche on Mt. Everest that killed sixteen Sherpas who were preparing the way through the Khumbu Icefall for the guided climbers who were to attempt the mountain in the coming weeks. It’s the worst disaster in the mountain’s history.

The University of Chicago Press recently published a gorgeous book about architecture, with compelling text and spectacular photos. It’s entitled The Library, A World History. It takes us from the ruins of libraries of antiquity through the cloisters of medieval libraries, past the “angels [and] frescoes” of 18th-century Baroque and Rococo libraries, around the iron stacks and gaslights of 19th century libraries, into the “concrete and steel” of 20th century libraries, and finally, through libraries in the emerging “electronic age.”

On April 4, 1914, a hundred years ago tomorrow, deep in the Amazon rain forest, former president Theodore Roosevelt lay delirious with a temperature of 105, too weak to lift his head. In just three months he had lost fifty-five pounds, a fourth of his original weight. His twenty-three-year-old son, Kermit, and the others didn’t think he’d survive the night.

If you saw any of the Olympics, you’ll probably remember a snazzy commercial with striking visuals and voiceover by Robin Williams. It’s an audio excerpt from the movie “Dead Poets Society,” the story of a passionate, charismatic English teacher at a boys’ private school. When the film came out, I was at a private school teaching English, including the great American poet Walt Whitman.

It’s startling when a TV commercial viewed by millions talks about the power and importance of poetry, then goes on to quote from Whitman. So I’m thinkin’ this is good stuff!

Last spring, when she was a high school senior, our daughter took part in one of many programs that bring high school students from around the country to Washington. Afterwards, she said that what she found particularly exciting and valuable was visiting with students from different regions of the nation, to share stories and perspectives from their communities. In the process, she said she came to understand better the complexity and paradoxes of our enormous country.

What I read was startling. The newspaper said that a development project could happen [quote] “by 2020, 15 years earlier than anticipated.” I thought, wait, what year is it now? 2014. It didn’t take me too long to do the math: 2020 is only six years away, not nearly as far in the future as I initially thought. Heck, six years ago it was 2008, and that’s almost yesterday.

In December 1863, exactly a hundred fifty years ago, The Atlantic published a short story by Edward Everett Hale, the nephew of Edward Everett, the distinguished orator whose two-hour speech preceded Lincoln's two-minute masterpiece, the Gettysburg Address. The story proved immensely popular in the North.

With a desperate civil war raging, the major expansion of the US Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. was an inspiring symbol of national confidence in the perpetuation of the Union. Ironically in the years before the Civil War, the ambitious plan to expand the Capitol from a modest statehouse-like building into a large, stately seat of government with separate, marble wings for the House and Senate, and a massive new dome was led by none other than Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.

Courtesy, Paul Carnahan, Vermont Historical Society

During the nineteenth-century, it wasn't unusual for several members of the same family to die of consumption, what we now call tuberculosis. People didn't know then that TB is caused by a contagious bacterial infection, or that it's spread when people who have an active infection sneeze, cough, or otherwise transmit their saliva through the air. Most people who have TB are asymptomatic, but about ten percent of such latent infections eventually become active, and if untreated, more than half die.

In 1963, September 15th was a Sunday , just as it is this year, five decades later, and at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, it was Youth Sunday, the day that the young people in the congregation lead the worship service.

An impressive commission that included Ken Burns, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, George Lucas, Yo-Yo Ma, eminent scholars, university presidents, and corporate leaders recently released a report commissioned by Congress. It’s entitled The Heart of the Matter, The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation.