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Gilman Hall: A home for humanities

Gilman Hall
The refurbished Hutzler Reading Room in historic Gilman Hall.
Photo: Will Kirk/Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

It is 146,000 square feet of classrooms, study space and offices. But it is so much more than that: It is the intellectual and philosophical heart of The Johns Hopkins University.

It is Gilman Hall, opened in 1915, a single building with everything a young university's faculty needed for world-class teaching and research.

It is Gilman Hall, reopened in 2010 after a three-year renovation, and once again a state-of-the art home for learning in literature, languages, history, art, philosophy and the rest of the humanities.

The building is extraordinary. The renovation was spectacular. The improvements to form and function are impressive. But all that is beside the point.

The real point of Gilman Hall - today, as it was in 1915 - is to nurture a community of scholars. The point of its design - from its stately formal seminar rooms to its cozy conversation nooks - is to encourage faculty members and students to collaborate, to share expertise, to explore ideas wherever they lead.

And the point is to encourage that collaboration not just within departments, but across disciplines. How do you understand art, for instance, without understanding the historical and cultural context that helped to extract it from the artist's imagination? How can you know literature without knowing its philosophical foundations? How can you get a handle on where civilization is going without examining how it started?

Connections are everything, said Basil Gildersleeve, the eminent classicist who was the first faculty member hired at Johns Hopkins. "Scrap knowledge is the bane of many scholars," he wrote. "Not to see a thing in its connections is not to see it all."

And the connections aren't severed at the door to Gilman Hall. They extend across the Homewood campus and around the entire university.

How can you even begin to consider health care reform without a grounding in ethics? Why delve into the mysteries of neuroscience if not to better appreciate the fact that we think? Why ponder the complexities of cosmology or evolution if not to shed new light on the fundamental questions of being? The humanities are at the center of it all.

"I became a philosophy major as an undergraduate because I thought it would anchor me to the great intellectual questions of our time. It remains my touchstone," says Katherine Newman, the new James B. Knapp Dean of Johns Hopkins' Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

"The humanities speak to our most fundamental inquiries about what we should value, how we should critique assumptions, where we should turn for self-understanding and for informed perspectives on the world beyond our borders," she says. "To consider these issues from the vantage point of such a stunning building, such a monument to scholarship ... what could possibly be better?"

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