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Cultural critic to address what it means to be human

February 26, 2008

Public scholar and award winning author Michael Bérubé will consider how academic advances in the sciences, and their interpretation in popular culture, affect what it means to be human and how the humanities must respond, during a lecture at 7 p.m. Feb. 28 in Armstrong Hall, on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus.

The title of Bérubé's lecture is “The Humanities and the Limits of the Human.” He will explore how scientific theory, neurology and disability studies have transformed what it means to be human and whether that transformation connects to the focus and scope of the humanities.

The Institute for Humanities Research in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU brings Bérubé to the campus as its 2008 Distinguished Lecturer. Bérubé is the Paterno Professor in English Literature and Science, Technology and Society at Pennsylvania State University, where he also is co-director of the disability studies program.

“Grounded in his own humanity and his expertise in science and technology and disability studies, Bérubé recognizes that the definition of what it means to be human is changing,” says Sally Kitch, director of the institute.

“As an interdisciplinary humanities scholar, he also recognizes that such changes will inevitably affect the study of humanities fields. Will the shorthand language of text messaging change standard language use or provide a new genre of literature? Does mapping the human genome change our concepts of religious belief, philosophical arguments or even historical events?” she notes.

Bérubé is nationally known for his passion about the humanities and liberal arts education, demonstrated in his book “What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and ‘Bias’ in Higher Education,” which rebuts the idea that American universities are overwhelmed with liberal bias and argues for students’ rights to free and open inquiry.

“He is a provocative speaker with many years spent talking to the public, writing for the public as well as academic audiences, and deeply exploring academic freedoms and students’ rights within the context of liberal arts and humanities education,” says Kitch. “He believes that institutions of higher education should be evaluated as a whole educational experience for students and not dissected into individual parts that are then attacked as narrow or distorted.”

Bérubé is the author of six books, including his 1996 prize-winning memoir, “Life as we Know it: A Father, a Family, and an Exceptional Child.” The book chronicles the Bérubé family’s life with a child who has Down syndrome, and engages in analysis of what it means to be human.

Bérubé has also written more than 150 essays for Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and other popular publications, as well as for academic journals such as American Quarterly, The Yale Journal of Criticism and Social Text.

The Institute for Humanities Research Distinguished Lecture is free and open to the public, reservations are required. For seating call (480) 965-3000 or e-mail More information at A dessert reception and book signing, where Bérubé’s books will be available for purchase, follows the lecture.