Signature Programs
Bowden Fellowships in the Humanities

Humanistic inquiry at RE: The Bowden fellows

In 1915, the historian Carl Becker asserted the value of history. “By liberalizing the mind, by deepening the sympathies, by fortifying the will, history," he wrote, "it enables us to control, not society, but ourselves, a much more important thing; it prepares us to live more humanely in the present and to meet rather than to foretell the future." The humanities — the study of history, literature, languages, cultures, philosophy, politics, the arts — are ever more important in an era when “STEM” skills are purported as the pathway to lucrative careers and when “cancel culture” and social media give some the impression that truth is not only relative, but trite, malleable, and ephemeral (which if it were the case, means that by definition, truth doesn’t exist).
Bowden Fellows Gallery Night Photos

These ways of thinking fail to appreciate the central role that engaging the humanities plays in a meaningful and satisfying life. But purposeful consideration of questions about human nature and the human condition have been at the center of great civilizations, whether the Greek obsession with arete (the human capacity for excellence) and eudaimonia (human flourishing, or human well-being); or medieval Islam’s ideals of the common kinship and unity of mankind, emphasis on classics to cultivate the mind and character, and humanness, or love of humanity; or Alain Locke’s messages of self-worth and empowerment that inspired the bourgeoning of human creativity during the Harlem Renaissance.

I am glad to have the opportunity here to share a bit about how we at Ransom Everglades are committed to humanistic inquiry. Some words that follow are excerpted from my opening remarks at the Dan Leslie Bowden Fellowships in the Humanities Gallery Night. Six years ago, these fellowships were created in honor of Dan Leslie Bowden, who dedicated more than six decades to Ransom Everglades as an iconic English teacher and Special Advisor to the Head of School, as well as in many other capacities. The Bowden fellowships offer academic and financial support for advanced inquiry in the humanities to rising seniors. 

According to a publication of the Centre for Digital Humanities at University College London, “the value of the humanities is more often found in the questions posed than the answers found; the study of the humanities are not formulaic.” In a world where it can sometimes be difficult to find the good, and equally as difficult to understand the bad, the work of the Bowden fellows challenges us to ask ourselves: what are our imperatives as humans? How, and why, should we live as humans? What is our purpose as humans, and how do we work toward that purpose? Ultimately, what does it mean to be human?

The Class of 2023 Bowden Fellows (Ian Barnett '23, Lucia Rose Dahn '23, Olivia Drulard '23, Sofia Gudino Ruffa '23, Jack Harris '23, Kyle Ng '23, Mason Signorello '23 and Liv Steinhardt '23) explore the fundamental role of knowledge and creativity in the human experience, they interrogate the importance of place — Castine, Maine, and Glastonbury, England, in particular — in shaping the human experiences of individuals and of communities. By studying the power of creative writing in the lives of adolescents, and exploring some of the world's most notable stories such as the Arabian Nights, they celebrate the timelessness of storytelling, and the power of stories to contextualize, inspire, and console in the human experience. And they illuminate the importance of understanding the past. The Class of 2023 Bowden Fellows tell stories that have been at best obscured, if not untold at all, until now, such as those of a small number of Jewish children who joined the Pedro Pan exodus from Cuba in the early 1960s. They revel in the human power to create and interpret stories, and they find meaning in the way that the stories of individuals work together to create narratives of community. These works attempt to understand the essential role that having a voice plays in the human experience, whether using that voice to create and tell stories, finding a voice by relating to the stories of others, bringing a compassionate voice to displaced communities, as Olivia did in her work on menstrual health education, or working to encourage young people to use the power of creativity to express themselves whether through the written word or in the case of Ian’s fellowship project, by learning to compose music.

Learn more about the Class of 2023 fellowship projects here.

The Bowden Fellowships are a signature opportunity for advanced research and study, but the humanities in the curriculum at Ransom Everglades affords all students the opportunity to learn deeply about themselves and others. Last year saw the comprehensive revision of the upper school English curriculum. The titles of our three core courses for grades 9, 10 and 11 were changed from the generic (World, American, and British Literature, respectively) to more interesting frameworks: Forms of Literature encourages freshman students to understand and reflect on modes of communication, audiences, and formats for personal expression through creative writing, poetry, and narrative; American Literary Movements sets the literature of the United States in context for sophomores, helping students to appreciate the ways in which literature — perhaps with timeless themes and lessons — is a product of its place and time; and Research into Anglophone Literature, which challenges juniors to refine their skills of inquiry and literary analysis by defining a research problem and crafting a thorough argument based on substantial research on a topic from the vast body of literature in the English speaking world. 

And this year, about 60 sophomores elected our new humanities course: Advanced American Studies. Students and the faculty involved with this course have shared with me the deep connections that students are developing between literature, political rhetoric, history, music, ephemera, and a wide range of other texts in order to develop a rich and nuanced appreciation for American life — and their place in it — both in the past and present. Although the concept of American studies is approaching 50 years old (in fact, I took a course in high school based on a rationale not unlike the one informing RE’s new course), faculty members Matthew Helmers, Elizabeth Cornick and John Ermer have put a tremendous amount of intentional work into developing an intricate syllabus that innovates by making an understanding of American culture the essence of this curriculum. 

Similarly, with the creation of our Humanities Department several years ago, our middle school curriculum in English and history seeks to help students understand interdisciplinary connections as they explore the human condition. With an increasing emphasis on project-based learning, our youngest scholars are seeking real-world applications while applying what they are learning, whether through our long-standing hands-on studies of globes and cartography or through newer projects that inspire even sixth graders to use their developing skills as human geographers to identify problems and create and present solutions to climate challenges as part of our Ransom Everglades Climate Symposium. Not unlike the Bowden fellows, our middle school students study the masterpieces of Homer and Shakespeare along with contemporary classics like Jiang’s Red Scarf Girl, Park’s A Long Walk to Water, Farmer’s House of the Scorpion, and Dean’s The Glory Field, and through student-centered, discussion-based pedagogy are emboldened to draw on their own experiences and insights to discover and discuss the meanings of these diverse texts. Here students are able to reflect on the allure of myths, consider the lives of young people like themselves through the lenses of race, class, ethnicity, nationality, geography, and through analytical and reflective writing, examine and more deeply understand the ethical dilemmas and good fortune and challenges they encounter in their own lives. 

With the end of the pandemic — an experience itself, that suffered from divisiveness and skepticism and would have benefited greatly from a focus on the integrity of the individual, rather that power, politics, and polemics — RE has developed international travel opportunities that complement the study of the humanities in our curriculum. Many are language immersion trips that will offer students the opportunity to use language as a window into other cultures and ways of life. Middle school students have the opportunity to utilize Spanish in Panama, and upper school students will be able to employ their Chinese in Singapore, their French in France, and their Portuguese in Brazil while journeying deep toward the headwaters of the Amazon river and acquiring a new appreciation for “roughing it.”

When President Biden presented Sir Elton John with the National Humanities Medal in September, he called John “An enduring icon and advocate with absolute courage, who found purpose to challenge convention, shatter stigma, and advance the simple truth that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.” Just as Elton John’s work on behalf of others stemmed from personal experience, the work of the Bowden fellows this year is also personal, based on firsthand experiences that challenged our fellows to reflect on what matters to them and how they want to live. The projects of Class of 2023 Bowden Fellows also advance this truth: they celebrate the dignity and respect of immigrants and refugees, of children, of people of all faiths, of leaders and followers, of creators and consumers, of the extraordinary and the ordinary. Their projects demonstrate, in Mr. Bowden’s words, “courage in the passionate pursuit of what it means to be human.” But they also represent a capstone experience for students who have over the course of their time at Ransom Everglades — we hope — built  a capacity and curiosity for analyzing and embracing the humanities, making personal connections to their own lived experiences, and developing the skills to research, write, and discuss these big questions with civility and confidence.

Indeed, we hope that all students at Ransom Everglades, through our curriculum, through our emphasis on inquiry and open mindedness, and through our rich menu of signature programs that complement the curriculum, think hard not only about SATs, business opportunities, and their reaction to the latest tweet, but also about their individuality, their capacity for action, and the broad range of their emotional intelligence in understanding and empathizing with their own lives and the lives of others. And as you interact with our students — as parents, teachers, alumni — I hope that when they tell you about the work they are doing as students at Ransom Everglades, they inspire you too to think more deeply about the nature of the human experience and what it means to be human.

John A. King Jr.
Associate Head of School
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Founded in 1903, Ransom Everglades School is a coeducational, college preparatory day school for grades 6 - 12 located on two campuses in Coconut Grove, Florida. Ransom Everglades School produces graduates who "believe that they are in the world not so much for what they can get out of it as for what they can put into it." The school provides rigorous college preparation that promotes the student's sense of identity, community, personal integrity and values for a productive and satisfying life, and prepares the student to lead and to contribute to society.