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To Bring the Humanities to All Americans, NEH Needed Local Partners

How the state humanities councils expanded and helped fulfill the mission of NEH

By Esther Ferington | HUMANITIES, September/October 2015 | Volume 36, Number 5

“Alaska, Wyoming, New York, California,” says Robert Vaughan, president and CEO of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. “There are tremendous variations. Every one of the fifty-six is unique.” By the fifty-six, he means not only the fifty state humanities councils, but also six parallel organizations in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and four territories—all of them set up, says Vaughan, “to serve where they are.”

After more than forty years at the Virginia council, where he was at the start in 1974, Vaughan has an exceptionally well-informed perspective. Taking Virginia as a case in point, then, how is it unique? For Vaughan, there are two answers.

One is “the history of Virginia, beginning in 1607” with Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement. “There are lots of Virginians interested in the whole of Virginia history,” Vaughan says. The other is a wealth of “connections with the academic community in the state, which is large.” From the beginning, the Virginia council “developed with a very strong academic orientation,” he says. “It was founded at the University of Virginia, so we were already there. We were created there and have remained there.”

In 2015, that mix of factors shaped numerous fellowships and public programs supported by VFH, as well as continued work on the online Encyclopedia Virginia, the annual Virginia Festival of the Book, and two radio programs. BackStory, hosted by three American historians (all endowed chairs, Vaughan notes), provides the historical “back story” on national events; an hour-long program, it airs on 173 radio stations and its episodes have been downloaded more than 7.6 million times. A second radio program, With Good Reason, is an eclectic, wide-ranging interview program.

In contrast, consider Nevada, where a humanities council got started in 1971. In 1990, former chair Wilbur “Shep” Shepperson chronicled the council’s first years in Sagebrush Urbanity, a book published by the Nevada Humanities Council. In it, he describes a booming population that is also culturally divided between rural Nevada and the big cities of Las Vegas and Reno. “As the humanities committee was being formed,” Shepperson wrote, “there were 488,000” people in Nevada. “By 1980, the population exceeded 800,000, and in 1990 it reached 1,200,000,” with rising prosperity and an increasingly diverse population. “The committee serves and reflects a different people in 1990 than when it was formed in 1971,” he wrote. “Local conditions did not allow for a plateau mentality.”

The committee found itself not only balancing rural and urban needs, but also traditional and public humanities. “Man could speak eloquently through systematized scholarship,” Shepperson wrote of the Nevada council’s perspective, “but also by casually probing under the leaves of nostalgia or by observing contemporary life. The Romanesque shopping plaza and the small-town boxcar museums are balanced against the academic and the traditional as honorable subjects for aesthetic and humanistic support and study.”

Twenty-five years after Shepperson’s book (to which a later Nevada executive director has since written a sequel), Nevada Humanities offers—among other programs—Humanities on the Road, the Vegas Valley Book Festival, the Reno-based Nevada Humanities Literary Crawl, the Online Nevada Encyclopedia (called, naturally, the “ONE”), a distinguished writers program, the Nevada Humanities Festival and Chautauqua, Young Chautauqua, and more.

And all of that public humanities ferment is just in Virginia and Nevada, home of two of the fifty-six councils. Where did it all come from?

An Extraordinary Innovation

“Everything about the state councils was novel, really novel,” in those early years, says Esther Mackintosh, president of the Federation of State Humanities Councils. “It was totally new to create programs for the public involving the humanities—entirely new, particularly at the state level.”

The story behind that innovation begins, like most good stories, with a dispute. The first and only term of the first NEH chair, Barnaby Keeney, drew to a close in July 1970. A former president of Brown University, Keeney chaired the original commission that led to the establishment of NEH. Like others, he saw it largely as a counterpart to the National Science Foundation, aimed at bolstering humanities scholarship at the national level. On this NEH quickly delivered, funding numerous fellowships and grants for premier humanities projects, from the papers of Booker T. Washington and George Washington to a multivolume biography of Thomas Jefferson, to archaeological expeditions that included an ancient Greek merchant ship. Through NEH funding, the BBC Civilization television miniseries was distributed to two thousand American campuses.

Meanwhile, the legislative father of NEH, Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, was stewing. Pell, who was first elected in 1960, saw NEH as a key legacy from his first term as senator. Now, in the latter part of his second term, he watched, with frustration, the runaway public success of the better known National Endowment for the Arts. By their nature, the performing and visual arts inevitably look outward to public audiences, in a way that some core humanities tasks, such as research and writing, may not. Moreover, NEA provided local funding through state-level arts councils, tied into their respective state governments. NEH had no such state-level counterparts.

At a hearing in 1970 to reauthorize the law that established NEH, Senator Pell urged Keeney to consider such state councils for the humanities, an idea that Pell had long advocated. They would provide “more grassroots support,” said Pell, and would “help you help yourself here on the Hill.” In separate hearings on the Endowment’s budget request, Keeney noted that “we intend to take the urging of the authorizing committee very seriously”—by establishing experimental programs in “one or more states.” Such state programs “would have certain obvious political advantages,” he conceded, “there are no really well-established state or regional institutions, and there is a lack of leadership. A good deal of the money would perhaps be used for programs of fairly low quality.” It was hardly a call to action.

An Active Acting Chair

In August, following Keeney’s departure, a new acting chair entered the scene. Wallace Edgerton had been deputy chair of NEH. Equally important, he had been an administrative assistant to Senator Harrison Williams, whose Labor and Welfare Committee was home to Pell’s subcommittee. Williams left no doubt that Edgerton remained a well-known and well-liked figure there.

A World War II veteran who had fought in Europe in his early twenties as an infantry officer, Edgerton had a bachelor’s degree from Columbia in general studies. Before coming to Capitol Hill, he had worked for the March of Dimes during its national polio test. In Sagebrush Urbanity, Shepperson calls him “the ebullient Wallace Edgerton,” describing him as “an activist, an idea man, ‘who concocted ideas over a cup of coffee.’”

Edgerton set up trial programs in six states, trying out three different approaches. Two states relied on “arts and humanities councils” to distribute or “regrant” NEH funds; two used existing adult education programs; and two more had new committees created for the purpose, drawing members from “historical societies, libraries, educational institutions, and public television,” according to the NEH budget. The brand new committees, with no competing responsibilities, immediately proved the most successful.

For the fiscal year starting in July 1971, Edgerton won operational funding for those six states and another ten—all now following the volunteer committee model—as well as planning funds for twenty more. By the time he handed the reins over to NEH’s next chairman, the distinguished Shakespeare scholar Ronald Berman, in December 1971, a full thirty-six state humanities committees were on the way. Over the next few years, Berman continued on to the full complement of fifty.

The “Better-Known Literary, Business, and Judicial Lights”

The state humanities councils needed board members and staff. NEH consulted professional associations and reached out to local contacts in search of prominent citizens as well as academics and educational administrators in one state after another. In April 1971, Edgerton met in Washington with Robert Whittemore, dean of extension at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Laurance Hyde Jr. of the National Judicial College. Hyde and Whittemore were soon part of a committee of eight board members, with Judge Hyde as chair. That summer, Shepperson, chairman of the Nevada Historical Society, was tapped to fill a vacancy. Looking back in 1990, he recalled members who included “the state’s better-known literary, business, and judicial lights, including two college or university presidents, a future governor, and leaders in Nevada’s senate and assembly.”

In such accounts of the early days, “I’m always struck by the sort of wonder that people on all sides had, that there, at the same table, were people from academia, business, and the cultural sector, all parts of the state’s communities, in a common enterprise that was new to all of them,” says Esther Mackintosh. “There was a lot of experimentation, in a certain way, because they were brand new. It was a sense of freedom, that we’re inventing something here.”

For the volunteers themselves, in some states, the prospect came as a bit of surprise. The first step was usually an invitation to Washington. The five somewhat mystified invitees from Indiana weren’t quite sure what to expect. “They called us from Washington and asked us to come in to discuss this,” philanthropist Virginia Ball recalled for an oral history project years later. “We went in on a very hot, hot August” day, Ball said. “It was a new program. We weren’t sure just how it would work.”

For Robert Burns, a professor of history at Notre Dame University, “the idea of public discussion programs was something that I had absolutely never, never, never heard of. And no experience with it at all.” He said, “I mean this, this was off the wall. Well, I was into it so I said ‘OK.’ And there was a date set when we were all supposed to go to Washington, which indeed we did. And the five of us met for the first time.”

Marvin Hartig, the dean of the evening college at the University of Evansville, remembered receiving a call in the summer of 1971. “She said, ‘I’m with the National Endowment for the Humanities.’ I hardly knew what that was at that point in time because the Endowment had just recently been established.” He told the caller about his adult education program and mentioned Bob Richey at Indiana University, head of the state’s largest continuing education program.

Eventually, there came another call: “Would you be willing to come to Washington for two days and meet with several other people from the state of Indiana along with us there at the Endowment?” He found himself in Washington with Bob Richey, Virginia Ball, Robert Burns, and Ed Howard, head of the Terre Haute Library.

“So,” said Hartig, “they told us the story and they left us alone for a little bit, you know, we talked amongst ourselves. And we decided we’re all gung-ho, we’re going to work on this.” A Hoosiers humanities council was born.

Humanities, Themes, and Public Issues

For Indiana and Nevada, those first meetings were milestone events. For NEH, they may have been milestones—but they were also just two of what would be fifty similar stories, each involving leading figures within the states’ nascent humanities communities.

Setting up so many committees so quickly was an enormous challenge. John Barcroft, a former NEH staffer, had left to become a college provost in Florida. Now he came back to start the program. By September 1972, Barcroft was visiting the committee in Nevada. Brilliant and intense, Barcroft found members for the state humanities committees and set out the rules for each to follow.

First, each committee had to come up with a single “theme” that would apply to all approved projects, to avoid a scattershot approach. Second, the purpose of the committees’ work was to elicit proposals, and regrant NEH funds, for humanities projects related to public policy—that is, to issues of concern to the public in that state. Public debate was fundamental to the basic conception of state humanities programming.

Still, it was a scheme that proved too narrow in many states. While Nevada’s first theme, “The Role of Law in Modern Society,” made sense for a committee chaired by a judge from a judicial college, it was also limiting. “Several proposals had the word ‘law’ rather artificially attached,” Shepperson recalled. “Dissembling became amusing at times,” he wrote, citing, for example, “The Role of Law and Flood Control in Las Vegas Valley.” It was not until 1975, with the bicentennial on the horizon, that the council broke free with a new, more flexible theme: “Continuity and Change.”

Humanities, not the Humane Society

As they sought a way forward, the committees traveled within their states. In Indiana, “some of my friends thought it was the Humane Society, that it was about cats and dogs,” recalled Virginia Ball cheerfully. But she soon convinced them “it wasn’t that.” Instead, “we took a sort of a ‘dog-and-pony’ show around the state to different places where we had people come in and let us explain what the humanities were and ask for programs and for people.”

Much of the travel, of course, was left to Indiana’s first executive director, Martin Sullivan, who was hired as he was completing his doctorate at Notre Dame. “I spoke to a lot of Rotary Clubs and a lot of faculty meetings,” he recalled. “We all used to read de Toqueville, you know, to think about what is this, what is the American character: volunteerism and the rest. But that was pertinent to the state committees and councils.”

In the spring of 1974, Rob Vaughan was similarly just finishing his PhD at the University of Virginia when “the university president called me in.” Virginia was the forty-fourth state on NEH’s state committee list and Vaughan was offered a job for the January to May semester, he recalls, to work out “what we would do and how we would do it.”

Vaughan too found himself “spending a lot of time driving around the state” to Norfolk, Richmond, Wise, and other destinations. The fledgling committee held ten public forums to seek input. “People turned out in droves,” he recalls, talking about the “kinds of issues they were interested in,” including a pressing issue of the time, physical accessibility. With the committee ready to start operations, the state’s annual humanities conference agreed to organize its fall 1974 event around the new committee’s efforts, helping immensely in spreading the word. Virginia’s humanities program was off and running.

By then, of course, the Nevada humanities team had been in operation for a few years. A committee-funded television documentary on capital punishment won an award. Slideshows produced by a town’s historical museum were borrowed by communities across the state, and several won awards as well. A panel called “Women, Sex, and Race” was well received; so too was a film series based on watching and discussing such classics as The Oxbow Incident, High Noon, and Witness for the Prosecution (all, of course, related to “the role of law”).

Especially in states with large rural areas, the committees were drawn to television, radio, touring exhibitions, and even slideshows as tools that might reach statewide. Public participation, however, often came down to one approach. “We really only had one arrow in our quiver, you know, the public discussion,” recalled Robert Burns of the Indiana committee. “What we discovered early on was that these things only work if you have some kind of common ground to work from,” he explained. “That means either somebody has to give a talk, you have to read a book or an article, you have to look at a film, you have to look at a building.”

Ed Howard, of the Terre Haute Library, encouraged any number of them. “All of us were charged to stir up a little something in our particular area,” Burns recalled. “But the guy who I think was most successful in that was Ed Howard, because we made jokes that there were so many public discussion programs being held in and around Terre Haute that it was going to sink into the ground! Couldn’t stand the weight.”

Howard was, in fact, a strong believer in the entire public humanities approach. “If he mentioned it one time, he mentioned it a hundred times,” said Hartig. “He compared this to the Chautauqua movement of our nation.” Howard “just loved that tie-in. And he was so anxious for the libraries to be an avenue to involve more public discussion, not just a place to harbor a lot of books.”

A Final Collision

Change, however, was in the air. In 1975, an assistant to John Barcroft came to the first of the Nevada committee’s annual retreats, urging the committee to lobby their congressional delegation to “save the state programs” from elimination or being turned over to the states, as the “Senator Pell Amendment” was said to do.

Just as the humanities committees were coming into their own, old Washington conflicts had returned. Senator Pell had once again taken on the issue of the state committees, arguing that the committees should become permanent councils, something close to state agencies. He also greatly delayed Chairman Berman’s renomination hearing after President Ford put him forward for another term. By the day of the hearing, the Washington Post was profiling Berman like a prizefighter, describing his morning jog before what it called “an intellectual shoot-out over humanities.”

By the time the dust had settled, the senator had prevailed in part. Berman did not serve a second term, and the committees became “councils.” Governors were now entitled to appoint a few members to the council boards. At the same time, the old requirement of specifying one “theme” and engaging in public policy issues was dropped, to most of the councils’ great relief. It was also at about this time, in 1977, that the Federation of State Humanities Councils was formed.

Public Humanities, a State at a Time

“We’re still in the business of public humanities,” says David Tebaldi, executive director and CEO of Mass Humanities. “Both academic and public humanities are grounded in scholarship. That’s a given.” The challenge is to make them “relevant to the public, to ordinary people.” The state councils, he says, have “an implicitly populist orientation. They’re closer to the people and respond to the needs and interests of local communities.”

Tebaldi, who first worked for several years for the Wyoming Humanities Council, has been executive director in Massachusetts since 1985. His move from Wyoming, a state with almost no humanities resources at that time, to Massachusetts, filled with top-level universities and museums, was the most vivid possible illustration of each state’s unique challenges. For the Massachusetts council, in fact, the original “public policy” approach has become the perfect niche.

Among its variety of programs, including courses and oral history projects, we “bring humanities to bear on issues of importance to the state,” says Tebaldi. In a spirit that harks back to the state committees of the 1970s, Mass Humanities produces an annual fall symposium on “problems of democracy,” says Tebaldi, though “not so much public policy. We began with the branches, starting with the presidency.” Participants included “historians, journalists, public officials, and members of former administrations. We looked at how presidential reputations change over time; we could get at a historical perspective.”

Other branches of government, and other topics—economic inequality, civil rights issues—have followed, but always on a subject that’s both “timely and of enduring significance,” he says. “The humanist element is central, and that’s what makes the difference.” He adds, “It’s a different voice. When it works best, it brings a certain wisdom and a perspective.”

In recent years, says Esther Mackintosh, other councils have revisited issues of public policy, too. “Increasingly, councils have come back around to this notion of how humanities can help us address issues of contemporary concern,” she says, “issues that people really care about, but on which they have difficulty finding common ground, providing a bridge between widely differing points of view, for which you need neutral ground.”

One reason is that the “councils are seen as not imposing a point of view,” she says. “They have the tools—humanities-led public discussion, examples from history, principles from philosophy, how people can live vicariously through pieces of fiction. It’s not ‘we can do what they did,’ not that,” Mackintosh says. “It’s understanding the rich body of human experience.”

About the Author

Esther Ferington is a freelance editor, writer, and content developer who works in print and digital media on topics ranging from modern art and Shakespeare to American popular culture and the history of science.

Funding Information

The fifty-six state humanities councils are supported by the U.S. government through NEH’s Office of Fed-State Partnership and, since their conception, have received $1.25 billion to support their operations and programs. Sources: Quotations regarding the Indiana Humanities Council come from interviews conducted in 1993 by Elizabeth Racette and held at the Indiana University Center for the Study of History and Memory.