Skip to main content

The Harry C. Howard, Jr. Lecture

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

Vanderbilt University
2201 West End Ave
Nashville, TN 37235
United States

October 27, 2015

Thank you and good evening.

I want to begin by thanking Mona Frederick and the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities for inviting me to speak tonight. I’m especially honored to take part in the distinguished Harry C. Howard, Jr. Lecture series, which over the years has featured so many important voices in the humanities.

I hope it won’t seem too boastful if I begin by noting the fact that one of the very first major gifts the Warren Center received was an NEH Challenge Grant endowing certain aspects of the Center’s activities. I can’t take personal credit for this grant, of course, but as we celebrate our 50th anniversary and take stock of our achievements, I’m honored to be able to observe the impressive results of this investment at Vanderbilt.

As I started thinking about this lecture in earnest several weeks ago, I found myself thinking about the Vanderbilt alumnus for whom the Center is named. I first encountered Robert Penn Warren’s work at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, in the winter of 1967 in a performance of All the King’s Men. I was a very young Second Lieutenant in the Army stationed at nearby Fort Knox, and when I had the time and opportunity I’d head for Louisville. I attended plays at Actors Theatre several times during the year I spent at Fort Knox. I also took a philosophy course in aesthetics, of all things, in the night school program at the University of Louisville.  

So what was I doing at Actors Theatre and at the university? It was in part a form of compensation. I’d left college abruptly after a very unhappy and confusing first year. My decision to join the Army in June of 1966 was impulsive, to say the least, and it didn’t take long for me to wish that I was back in college. So I invented a substitute universe for myself, almost as if the rest hadn’t happened.

But I know now that there was more to it than that. Being an executive officer in a basic training company at Fort Knox in 1967, as the Vietnam War and the draft escalated, was a searing experience for a young man who had grown up in a comfortable middle class suburb of Detroit. I encountered people from every imaginable background during my time at Fort Knox. Their lives in the Army were hard, unforgiving, and unpromising. Many of the soldiers I encountered that year were on their way to Vietnam, as I was, only months after leaving Fort Knox.  

And I was desperately trying to put all of this together, to shape it into some kind of meaningful whole, and I knew in a vague, inchoate way that the things I saw and heard at Actors Theatre and at the university were relevant in some way to that process. I was in some ways a very young and unsophisticated version of Warren’s character Jack Burden, who struggles throughout the novel, and the play, to put the fragments of his experience into some kind of meaningful order.

What I’d like to share with you tonight is a view of the purposes and power of the humanities that’s rooted in the proposition that in some form or another, the humanities almost always come back to the centrality of meaning in our individual and collective lives. I hope it won’t seem too acrobatic if I attempt, in addition, to connect this proposition to the evolution of NEH over the last 50 years and to fundamental changes in the ways in which we understand the humanities and indeed culture itself.

On February 26, 1965, Frederick Burkhardt, the President of the American Council of Learned Societies, appeared before the House and Senate subcommittees charged with hearing testimony on the recently drafted National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act, which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law several months later. A portion of Burkhardt’s testimony reads as follows:

Carthage was a culture that devoted its creative talents to war and trade. It came close to defeating Rome. When, finally, the Romans wiped out Carthage there was nothing left but a pile of rubble on the plains of what we now call Tunisia. But when the Huns sacked Rome, Virgil and Cicero, Terence, Ovid, Catullus and Horace and a host of other poets and statesmen remained a living force and have lived with us to this day.

So too any civilization will be a living force in the world of the future to the extent that it values and nurtures the creative forces of the arts and humanities. . . .”[1]

The legislation creating NEH and NEA was an important element of the progressive legislative agenda enacted by Congress and the Johnson administration in the mid-1960s, an agenda launched at the very moment the country was entering one of the most tumultuous periods in its modern history, perhaps in its entire history. But even as the idea of creating a federal cultural agency dedicated to advancing the humanities was unprecedented and, in at least one way that I will discuss, very progressive, it was also deeply rooted in traditional cultural and intellectual norms, as Burkhardt’s words suggest. His references to the classics are telling. And so, too, is the apparent anxiety that for all its power and wealth, post-World War II American society still lacked the cultural solidity of older, more mature civilizations: we might still wind up like Carthage. How we will look to future societies, as they look back on us? Will they find anything interesting and worthwhile to think about?

This is a view of culture and of the humanities that has distinct echoes of the high Victorian sensibilities of Matthew Arnold. In Arnold’s rendering, culture is a collection of great works of mind and spirit that are bequeathed to the future, and that the future will receive and contemplate with admiration and appreciation. In this framework, the humanities are essentially about the excavation and exploration of the great cultural tradition. The result of that exploration is the improvement of our own minds and sensibilities through exposure to great works of thought and artistic expression.

This understanding of the humanities is clearly on display in the “Report of the Commission on the Humanities” published in 1964, which report Frederick Burkhardt helped write. The Commission was formed through the efforts of the American Council of Learned Societies, Phi Beta Kappa and the Council on Graduate Schools in 1963 and its report led to the drafting of the legislation creating NEH the NEA. The preface to the report begins with the famous remark attributed to John Adams: “I must study politics and war that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy,” Adams continues, “geography, natural history, and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture. . . .” [2]

There is a closely related reference to this view of culture in one of the principal arguments the Commission advanced for the creation of federal agencies devoted to cultural concerns. As a revealing artifact of the times and of a certain understanding of culture, the passage is worth sharing:

A novel and serious challenge to Americans is posed by the remarkable increase in their leisure time. The forty-hour week and the likelihood of a shorter one, the greater life expectancy and the earlier age of retirements, have combined to make the blessing of leisure a source of personal and community concern. “What shall I do with my spare time” all too quickly becomes the question “Who am I? What shall I make of my life?” When men and women find nothing within themselves but emptiness they turn to trivial and narcotic amusements, and the society of which they are a part becomes socially delinquent and potentially unstable. The humanities are the immemorial answer to man’s questioning and to his need for self-expression; they are uniquely equipped to fill the “abyss of leisure.”[3]

One can’t help but wonder what the report’s authors would think about the ways in which Americans currently fill “the abyss of leisure.” And in light of what has happened in the United States economy and the culture of work over the past five decades, I’m also struck by how surprising, nearly unfathomable to us is the notion that the world of material necessity and work would soon give way to a world of universal leisure. But it was in the air in 1965, in both conservative and progressive circles of social thought.

But what’s more interesting in this passage is the fundamental assumption that culture and its understanding and appreciation lie outside the everyday worlds of work and politics and commerce. Recalling Aristotle’s view that the life of the mind succeeds the household and political realms, while in every sense depending upon them, culture is here conceived as the creature of leisure, becoming possible only once the realm of material necessity and all that it entails is left behind.

In light of this traditional understanding of culture and of the humanities, it’s not terribly surprising, I think, that the earliest priorities of the NEH were focused on research and on the elite higher education institutions, public and private, where fundamental humanities research was being conducted. There were other pressures leading in this same direction, including considerable envy of the National Science Foundation, founded a decade or so before. And there were certainly other impulses operating in the broad humanities community, which I’ll come back to shortly. But the classical paradigm was certainly a force in the early period of NEH’s work. And it was associated with a number of other important assumptions and positions regarding higher education and the cultural realities of the United States, including a highly professionalized, principally academic and increasingly specialized view of humanities work; distance from the public and public concerns; a strongly hierarchical view of American higher education; and the pervasive and fundamental belief in the distinction between high culture and mass culture, between the highbrow and the lowbrow.

The irony of this moment, of course, is that the traditional humanities paradigm was about to crash into the wall of history. In 1965 the civil rights movement was well under way, of course, to be followed shortly by the swelling of the anti-war movement, the counter culture, and the early stirrings of the women’s movement. I don’t want to draw an overly simplistic picture of the relationship between social movements and ideas of culture, but it’s very clear that the eruptions of the 1960s put considerable pressure on the ways in which universities and the disciplines concerned with culture, history, and social life thought about themselves and their ultimate purposes and responsibilities. 

Meanwhile, early practices at NEH were being influenced by the mostly unwelcome interventions of Congress, led by the relentless Senator from Rhode Island, Claiborne Pell. For Pell and like-minded politicians, the expenditure of public funds in the service of the humanities had to have demonstrable public impact, beyond the remote and (to some) indecipherable work of humanities scholars closeted away in universities. Pell pushed for and ultimately realized a system of state humanities councils that created public programs and re-granted federal funds to local organizations. The theory and practice of the so-called “public humanities” were generated in part by the leaders and work of these state councils, though the cause was also taken up eventually by academic humanists and, more recently, by the humanities center movement.

By the late 1970s, NEH was beginning to make significant investments in a much more public conception of its work. The agency established a Division of Public Programs and began experimenting with programming in the public arena, primarily in the museum field and in public television. These early efforts were, at first, halting and uncertain, and clearly regarded as less important than the research agenda. But they led to bolder and more confident initiatives in the fields of documentary filmmaking, radio production, and support for humanities programs in public and private libraries, historic sites, and cultural organizations of all shapes and sizes. The first decade of NEH’s work also saw the creation of a program of seminars and institutes for college teachers, which were expanded in the 1980s to include high school teachers. More recently, NEH has led the way in the evolution of the “digital humanities,” which have extraordinary significance for public engagement with the humanities. What began as an enterprise devoted to research became an engine for a complex and diverse array of humanities activities and practices around the country. 

As NEH was making its public turn, a different construction of the humanities was emerging in the academy. I want to call this construction “pragmatic,” in the specific philosophical sense intended by William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty, among others. In this understanding of the humanities, the concept of experience replaces tradition as the foundation and touchstone of humanities practices. This reorientation toward the realm of experience was also influenced by the phenomenology flowing from France and Germany in the works of philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In both phenomenology and pragmatism, the lived experience of the world is the anchoring focus and preoccupation.

The attention to lived experience and the related understanding of the humanities as means of illuminating our experience was given additional energy by the view of culture that was emerging from anthropology. The most important proponent of this view in the American context was undoubtedly Clifford Geertz.  Geertz’s manifesto, The Interpretation of Cultures, was first published in 1973, just as NEH was taking its first steps toward a more public engagement with the humanities. In that work, Geertz developed an understanding of culture as a network of symbols that give meaning to every level and dimension of individual and collective experience. The task of the ethnographer, Geertz argued, is to describe or interpret the meaning of culture by way of what he called “thick description,” an interpretive process relying as much on literary and artistic imagination and methods as on scientific observation and analysis. In this world of symbolic systems and the meanings they generate, culture is comprehensive of every part of life, including the political, the commercial, and the mundane. Culture is everywhere, in other words, and it gives meaning to everything we do. The paradigm bequeathed to us by Aristotle and John Adams is now turned on its head. Or as Geertz and William James both suggested in reference to a jocular expression in Hindu cosmology, “it’s culture all the way down.”

The pragmatic and ethnographic turn in the humanities led to the erosion of distinctions that were part of the classical paradigm, and most notably the distinction between high and low culture, between elite culture and mass culture. As this distinction weakened, vast new tracts of human experience have come under the gaze of humanists hungry to extend the boundaries of their endeavors. Today, the humanities in the United States are broadly arrayed across a vast landscape of cultural material and study. In principle, everything is open to investigation and interpretation. And that investigation is going on in many places outside the academy—in museum and library communities, especially, but also in historic sites and in documentary film and radio. The contemporary humanities are not just concerned with public things. They are being practiced out in public spaces and institutions, informed by and simultaneously informing academic research.

I started these remarks with the assertion that in some form or another, the humanities almost always come back to the centrality of meaning in our individual and collective lives. What I want to suggest by way of conclusion is that a broadly public and pragmatic understanding and practice of the humanities is one of the most promising and, indeed, essential platforms for their future evolution in the United States, both within and outside the academy.

My conviction in this regard has a great deal to do with your immediate circumstances. Within the academy, and I would also say within almost every other part of our educational system, the humanities and the arts are under significant pressure. Just how much pressure, and with what effects, varies enormously, I’m discovering, from place to place and from institution to institution. But over the past decade, at least, there has been a steady and general narrowing of public discussion about the purposes of education at all levels. Most of us would attribute that narrowing to at least three factors: the recent economic recession and related vocational anxieties; the ascent of the STEM disciplines and the general fascination with technology; and the implementation of testing regimes that have overwhelmed primary and secondary teachers and administrators.

The implications of this narrowing have rightly generated considerable alarm among those who are inclined toward a more generous understanding of educational purpose. And close to the top of the list of the most worrisome implications is what this narrowing might mean for our civic life. As John Dewey understood, the theory and practice of American democracy have always been closely tied to educational practices that support the elemental requirements of citizenship. Those requirements include a reasonably broad acquaintance with American history, a grasp of the fundamental principles of liberal democracy, and acquaintance with the cultural landscape that we currently inhabit. It’s hard to imagine how we sustain a vibrant democratic political culture in this country without a sustained commitment at all levels of education to the forms of humanistic learning that support democratic institutions and practices.

While the humanities are critical to the integrity of our democratic institutions, I’m also quite sure they’re critical to our collective capacity to address our most difficult and vexing contemporary social challenges. Most of the great issues of the day—think of race relations, or immigration, the legacies of recent wars, the vexing questions being raised by genetic engineering, and our relations with the natural world—are not, in the end, technical or scientific in nature, though technology and science certainly raise their fair share of thorny issues. Rather, the grand challenges of our times almost always appear at the intersections of our history, our culture, our ideas and our values. These are the domains in which the humanities have their proper and distinctive place, and these are the domains in which we need much more of the imaginative, moral and intellectual capacities embedded in the humanities.

Last but not least, we need to be concerned that the current narrowing of educational purpose will negatively affect the culture of innovation that has been such a critical element of the American economy. Since I previously associated him with a traditional and backward looking view of the humanities, I want to resurrect Frederick Burkhardt by sharing his extraordinarily prescient comment on the relationship between scientific progress and humanistic learning, also delivered in his testimony before Congress:

“. . . there is now a widespread concern that the emphasis on science, important as it is, has produced an imbalance in our civilization and specifically in our educational system where much of the vast amount provided for the support of science and scientific research has been invested. There has been no comparable investment in the humanities and the arts and in consequence the education of our young, including our young scientists, runs the risk of becoming narrowly technical and short-sighted. . . . A lopsided, half-starved educational system is something this country simply cannot afford, however strong in technology, however strong in defense and wealth. Science itself will suffer in such an environment.[4]

The path to a renewed understanding of education goes by way of the rediscovery of the fundamental importance of the education of the whole person. We need to reconnect to the educational ideal that has until now distinguished the American educational system, and particularly its system of higher education—the ideal of liberal learning. And we must recapture that commitment in every kind of institution, from the rural high school to the major urban research university.

The humanities must be front and center in this reimagining of liberal learning. For it is the humanities that put us back in touch with our experience. Not our experience as rendered by the natural sciences and the highly quantitative social sciences, though those renderings are important, but our experience at it is lived, out in the world, by real people. It’s the humanities that give us access to and help us comprehend our experience in its raw, unmediated, and ultimately inescapable and irreducible form.

Robert Penn Warren certainly understood this. In 1964, he travelled across the country interviewing leaders and participants in the civil rights movement. As I know you’re all aware, these interviews were published in book form in 1965 under the title Who Speaks for the Negro? Warren answered his own question by gathering firsthand accounts of this extraordinary social movement. A decade later, in 1974, Warren delivered the Jefferson Lecture, the highest honor bestowed by the National Endowment for the Humanities. In that lecture, he argued for the central importance of literature and poetry in the life of a democracy. “I suppose that I do think of poetry as a passion of the soul,” he said, “though that lingo is high-falutin. Even a nourishment of the soul, and indeed of society to boot, in that it keeps alive the sense of self and the sense of a community. It even, in the same act and same moment, helps one to grasp reality and to grasp his own life. Not that it will give definitions and certainties. But it can help us to ponder what Saint Augustine meant when he said that he was a question to himself.”[5]

Thank you very much.


[1] Statement of Frederick Burkhardt, President of the American Council of Learned Societies, before the Special Subcommittee on the Arts and Humanities of the Senate and the Special Subcommittee on Labor of the House of Representatives, February 26, 1965.

[2] “Report of the Commission on the Humanities,” The American Council of Learned Societies, New York, 1964.

[3] Ibid, p. 5.

[4] Burkhardt, Statement before the Special Subcommittee on the Arts and Humanities of the Senate and the Special Subcommittee on Labor of the House of Representatives, February 26, 1965.

[5] Democracy and Poetry. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975.