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Address to National Federation of State Councils

William D. Adams, National Endowment for the Humanities

William D. Adams, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Federation of State Humanities Councils, 2014 Philadelphia, PA
United States

November 1, 2014

Good morning and thank you for the generous introduction and warm welcome.

I’d like to begin by thanking the Federation for the invitation to attend the conference and to speak to you this morning. I’ve learned a lot over the past few days, and I value this opportunity to talk about the humanities and about my hopes for the NEH.

I also want to thank you for the work that you do, day in and day out, to advance the humanities in your states and territories. As I’ve been learning on recent trips, public awareness and appreciation of the humanities depend in great part on your energy, enthusiasm, and programs. You provide the country and those of us at NEH with a vitally important touchstone and connection to communities all over the country. You are in many ways the voice of the public humanities, and I look forward to the chance to meet you where you live and work. 

I’d like to do three things this morning. First, I want to share some impressions of my first few months at NEH. Second, I want to use those impressions as a point of departure from which to share my views on the humanities generally and on the ways I hope to influence the work of the NEH during my time as chairman. And third, I want to talk a bit about NEH’s 50th anniversary and how the state councils might help with our celebration. I hope that will leave time for some questions and discussion.

I’ve spent a good part of the last three months getting to know both the NEH and the people and organizations in Washington that support and influence our work. I still have some work left to do on these fronts. The agency is remarkably complex, and we have a lot of friends and stakeholders in Washington. But I’m getting there.

My strongest and most positive impressions from these months have to do with the core mission at NEH—grant-making in education, in preservation and access, in research, in our public programs, in the digital humanities, and in our partnership with all of you. I just completed reviewing the materials for my first national council meeting, when some two hundred grants from our programs will be submitted to the council for its review and recommendations. Observing first-hand the quality of the grant application and review process has been enormously reassuring and encouraging to me. But even more impressive is the range of the projects we’re supporting, which includes everything from the most specialized humanities research projects, to highly technical projects in materials preservation, to curricular initiatives in colleges and universities, to library and museum programs, additions and renovations, to film and radio projects, to digital initiatives exploring new ways to share the interests and work of humanists. It’s a program of remarkable scope, and it speaks powerfully to the depth and excellence of humanities work that is going on across the country.

I’ve had the chance to see some of that work up close as I’ve visited grantees, including representatives of the state councils, around the country. My first encounters with grantees occurred here in Philadelphia, where I visited the Barnes Foundation, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Free Library, the National Constitution Center, the University of Pennsylvania Museum Library, the Pennsylvania Historical Society, and the Thomas Jefferson University. I also spent time with Laurie Zierer and her colleagues from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. One of our most memorable meetings was with a young veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts who is currently enrolled in Penn’s engineering program and who has benefited from the university’s Trio/Upward Bound bridge program for veterans. The Pennsylvania State Humanities Council’s recent grant from NEH’s Standing Together initiative is now supporting that program at Penn.

Last week I spent two days in Abilene, Kansas, with Julie Mulvihill and the Kansas Humanities Council and board. I got a very good sense of what that energetic council is doing, which is very impressive. I also spent time with representatives from academic institutions around the state, many of them recent NEH grant recipients. Earlier this week, I spent a fascinating day with Hayden Anderson and representatives of the Maine Humanities Council. We discussed their work with the Norway, Maine, Public Library and NEH’s Muslim Journeys resource, and we also met with veterans participating in a Book Group funded by NEH. These days were among the most interesting and instructive that I have had at NEH.   

Here’s the point: as with our grant programs, the excellence and diversity of our grantees and their work is striking. Seen through the lens of that work, and that of the state councils, it’s clear that the humanities are reaching impressively large numbers of people in many compelling, and compellingly different, ways.  

I share these impressions, and especially those regarding the range and diversity of our work, because they bear directly on what I’ve been thinking about in my first few months in Washington.

In his contribution to a volume titled The Public Humanities (1983)[1], David Little, then a professor at the University of Virginia, described what he perceived as the tension within the Western humanistic tradition regarding its ultimate purposes and value. On the one hand, Little notes, there has always been an important thread insisting that humanistic learning should be focused on the timeless questions and concerns that have preoccupied great thinkers and writers since earliest times.  The outcome and value of that kind of focus are at once moral and aesthetic. The contemplation of “the best of what has been thought and said,” to use Matthew Arnold’s much celebrated formulation, deepens our intellectual and moral capacities as human beings and opens us to broader and deeper experience of human excellence and beauty. Little calls this the “Renaissance” view of the humanities, though it’s clearly evident beyond those times and beyond Europe.

On the other side of the spectrum is an unabashedly pragmatic conception of the purposes of the humanities, one rooted in the idea that the humanities serve “the conduct of life,” in William James's helpful phrase. In this framework, the humanities are valuable because they help us understand the circumstances of our lives, as individuals and as members of the public sphere. Thinking of Max Weber, Little calls this conception of the humanities the “Protestant,” though it too appears broadly across the tradition.

These two understandings of the ultimate nature and purposes of the humanities—I’ll call them the Arnoldian and the Jamesian, or the classical and the pragmatic—have appeared in several different forms in our own time. One of my predecessors at NEH, William Bennett, made the Arnoldian conception of the humanities his focus as chairman. In his signal work, “To Reclaim a Legacy,” he argues for a return to an educational ideal focused on the perennial questions embodied in the great texts of the tradition. “Mankind’s answers to compelling questions,” he writes, “are available to us through the written and spoken word … and also in non-literary form, in what John Ruskin called the book of art. Within them are expressions of human greatness and of pathos and of tragedy. In order to tap the consciousness and memory of civilization, one must confront these texts and works of art.”[2]

As Bennett made his argument for the return to a focus on the classical Western tradition, the “public humanities” movement was taking shape and asserting the pragmatic view. The movement has had many able spokespersons, but I’ll mention two here who will be familiar to this audience—James Quay and James Veninga, former directors of the California and Texas councils. As part of a broad re-thinking of the humanities that took place through a National Task Force on Scholarship and the Public Humanities sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies in 1989, Quay and Veninga made a compelling case for an understanding of the humanities aimed squarely at the public sphere. With Bennett, Quay and Veninga argue for a humanities practice devoted to cultural literacy. But in their view, that literacy involves broad domains in public life: multicultural literacy, civic literacy, and community literacy.

A more recent argument for the civic engagement of the humanities was advanced by Martha Nussbaum in her book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010)[3]. Nussbaum’s aim was to define the key capacities of citizens in a contemporary democracy, and she makes an important argument for the centrality of the humanities in the development of those capacities. Democracy requires that its citizens have the capacity to think clearly and creatively about fundamental political questions; that they are capable of empathy, respect, and concern; that they have political judgment and imagination; that they can think deeply about the common good; and that they are cosmopolitan in their fundamental outlook.   

Like most of you, I suspect, I am quite familiar with both sides of the tension or ambivalence that I have outlined here. I have known the deep intellectual and aesthetic pleasure of becoming acquainted with “the very best of what has been thought and said” in the Western humanities tradition, and my life is immeasurably richer, and deeper, as a result. I have also experienced first-hand the insight and intellectual empowerment that comes from the deployment of the humanities in addressing life’s challenges, both personal and shared.  

NEH will always have obligations and commitments on both sides of the divide. But I think the time is right for the agency and the humanities community around the country to take another creative step along the path of the pragmatic understanding of the humanities, one that will deepen public understanding of what we do and also demonstrate how the humanities can serve the American people.

I have several reasons for saying this. The first stems from my experience as a college president for nearly twenty years, and from an entire career spent in institutions of higher learning. That experience tells that many students in American colleges and universities are eager to make connections between their educational endeavors and the world around them. A public-facing understanding of the humanities, one closely attendant to the conditions of our national life and the opportunities and challenges we face, will be a powerful inducement to students to explore the humanities. This understanding of the humanities might also serve as a corrective to the recent tendency of many humanities programs in colleges and universities to pursue increasingly technical and theoretical concerns. This is not true everywhere and in all disciplines, of course, but as a general matter there has been a pronounced trend toward greater and greater specialization and professionalization of humanities curricula and concerns. 

My second reason is rooted in the world around us. The founding legislation at NEH speaks eloquently of the need to attend to “the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.” Today, fifty years after NEH’s founding, and as the country grapples with enormous changes, the “conditions of our national life” suggest that this need is greater than ever. New and powerful technologies exercise unprecedented influence over our private and public lives, in both empowering and constraining ways. Our democratic institutions are being tested by deep changes in the means by which people engage the political process, if they engage it at all. Issues such as climate change raise fundamental questions about our collective future, however one perceives the ultimate sources of threat. The dramatic advances of biomedical technology raise difficult new questions and choices for ordinary citizens as well as healthcare professionals, even as they hold out fantastic possibilities. The United States has been at war almost continuously for more than twenty years, and the many attendant concerns—from how we reconnect war veterans to civilian life to the purposes and justifications of armed conflict—have become major topics of public discussion. These and other contemporary challenges, in the United States and around the globe, require more than ever the forms of understanding and knowledge represented within the humanities.

Sometime before the end of the year, NEH will launch a new agency-wide initiative called “The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square.” The initiative is designed to enhance the scope and significance of the humanities and humanities scholarship in public life. It will be organized around a number of exemplary themes and suggestive questions, which might include the following:

How can the humanities illuminate the positive and perhaps worrisome ways in which the remarkable advances in information technology are affecting both individuals and communities in contemporary American life?

How can the humanities help illuminate the debate over the appropriate balance of security and privacy that technological advances have placed before us?

How can the humanities help enrich public understanding of the meaning and opportunities of democratic citizenship in the twenty-first century, in relationship to our founding principles and values and to our political history?

How can the humanities contribute to the understanding of the changing relationships between humans and the natural world?

How can the humanities illuminate the legacies of recent wars and conflicts, and contribute to the achievement of a deeper and broader public understanding of the experience and lessons of war?

How can the humanities contribute to the full incorporation of veterans into civilian life and help broaden public understanding of the experience and perspective veterans have as a result of their experiences?

How can the humanities assist the country in addressing the challenges and opportunities created by the changing demographics in many American communities?

How can the humanities help illuminate the enormous promise of new biomedical technologies and procedures and deepen our understanding of the complex ethical and personal questions they raise?  

How can the humanities help address the various forms of cultural and political polarization that have become so prevalent in contemporary America and contribute to the achievement of new forms of community and understanding? 

Because I both admire and value the work of the state councils, I’ve invited the federation’s board of directors to designate a small working group to meet with me and share reactions to the Common Good initiative. I hope that consultation will take place in the reasonably near future.

And NEH will welcome your help in yet another way. Our 50th anniversary next year is an extraordinary opportunity to draw attention to the amazing work of the agency over five decades and to connect an even broader public to our organizations and the work we do. I hope that you will find ways to join us in this enterprise. We’ll be communicating with you much more extensively in the coming months about how the state councils can help us draw attention to this important moment and to your own good work as well. For now let me say that your efforts along a number of general fronts will be deeply appreciated:

First, as we develop a communications plan for the agency, we want to invite every council to join us in a campaign to promote the 50th anniversary. As part of this effort we will develop a special 50th anniversary logo and other communications tools that you will be able to use on your websites and in your promotional efforts; 

Second, we know that resources are limited, and we want to work with you to frame selected Council projects as part of the 50th anniversary.  Let me suggest that you think creatively about ways to take some of the activities that you are planning to do next year and connect your good work to our efforts to promote the 50th anniversary and to our new Common Good initiative.

As much as we wish to highlight your achievements and ours, we also have another purpose in marking this anniversary: we want to recapture some of the energy, the imagination and the vision that went into creating the NEH and then the state councils by asking ourselves and our partners what steps we need to take to ensure that the humanities continue to engage and serve a broad public audience.

I know that this challenge is one we share, and I was pleased to see that there are several sessions on the conference program that are forward-looking.  We know we must address and embrace these challenges as part of any successful anniversary.

And so, finally, I want to invite every Council to join with us in an imaginative effort to think about the future of the humanities. This might be the best way to develop 50th anniversary projects that address new audiences, and this is certainly a goal we share with you.

We’re still very much in the planning stages for this latter item, but we think any events or programs we develop might culminate in 2016 as the capstone of our entire effort.  State councils must be part of this planning and I want to invite you to think with us about the best possible strategies for initiating a wide, inclusive conversation about the common good and the role the humanities can and must play in promoting that good.

I want to close by saying again how glad I am to be among you and how much I look forward to working with you in our common endeavor. In preparation for the 50th, I’ve been reading a lot about the early history of NEH, and I’ve been particularly inspired by two very early documents. The first is our founding legislation, which includes in the “Declaration of Purpose” the pronouncement “that the world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power and wealth and technology, but must be solidly founded upon a worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s high quality as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit….”[4] I think everyone here would agree that the need for this country to be a leader in the realm of ideas and the spirit is every bit as great now as it was fifty years ago, and probably much greater.

The second is from a transcript of notes taken at the third meeting of the first National Humanities Council, in 1966, shortly after the founding of the agency. In the course of the meeting, one of the council members—John Letson, an official in the Atlanta public school system—expressed the hope that the research program and funding at NEH would not cause the NEH to lose sight of the need “to broaden the general area of the humanities as the equipment of all the citizens.”[5]  Tempted as I am by the pragmatist persuasion, I have to admit to being partial to that phrase, “the equipment of all the citizens.” But I also like the juxtaposition of both passages, the one directing us toward the heights of world leadership, the other toward the lives of citizens. In most ways that matter, it remains our task to hold these ideas together.

Thank you again for this opportunity and for listening to these developing thoughts. I look forward to your questions and to visiting you in your states and to learning more about your important work.

 

[1] The Public Humanities: An Old Role in Contemporary Perspective. The George Washington University: Washington, D.C. 1984

[2] To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education. Washington, D.C: National Endowment for the Humanities, 1984

[3] Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010

[4] Public Law 89-209, September 29, 1965.

[5] History of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Nov.’64-Jan.’69. Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Humanities, 1969.