Winners of the National Humanities Medals at the Endowment
On Friday, November 6th, several of the 1998 National Humanities medalists gathered at the Endowment to discuss their work and to answer questions. The transcript of their remarks appears below.
WILLIAM FERRIS: The Endowment, as all of us well know, is embarked on a new agenda which we're calling "Rediscovering America." As we approach the millennium, we are digging in much more deeply into the roots of our culture and our traditions. We are also exploring and trying to share with every American the meaning of what humanities are about. That task has been done eloquently and nobly for us by the recipients of these National Humanities Medals. It is our pleasure to have a cameo visit with each of these recipients this morning. Without further ado I'm going to ask each of the recipients to come to the podium and to share a few thoughts about the humanities. I would say that you are our national treasures and you represent the heartbeat of what this Endowment is all about.
So without further ado I would like to ask E.L. Doctorow to come to the podium and share thoughts with us.
E.L. DOCTOROW: I was hoping to go last, relying on the thoughts and creative imaginations of my colleagues. I don't really know how to distinguish the humanities from life. It seems to me, as a word, to express the broad band of thought and of thinking and writing that covers all the disciplines, possibly including science and math. And I worry sometimes that the division of our sort of cultural categories into the humanities and the arts on the one hand and the serious, practical, hard business world on the other is a mistake.
The fact of the matter is that I've come to think that reality is amenable to any construction that we placed upon it. Therefore, the only possibility for sane and self-realizing society is to have as many witnesses as possible -- have a multiplicity of witness -- and that involves scholarship, writing, imagination, brazen political dissidence, and all the rest.
By way of conclusion to my two minutes, I have to confess to having a certain bias for fiction [audience laughter], which I think of as a meta-discipline, one that can incorporate all the others. Whereas a journalist cannot go into someone's mind, and a scientist cannot use certain words that the theologian can use, and the theologian cannot or does not usually use the dirty words of the tabloids, the novelist can use all the words, all the vocabularies: myth, legend, history, confession, reportage, and the mutterings of the mad people in the street. It's all the same; it's all data. So I think of that as an ultimate discourse, and I'm happy to embrace all of my colleagues with a thank you.
WILLIAM FERRIS: I have to say that one of my fondest memories of Washington in the time I've been here has been squeezing into standing room only at Ragtime with my family, and in a very real way that represents the vision that we are hoping to do for America. We thank you for that beautiful piece. Our next speaker is Diana Eck.
DIANA ECK: Thank you. I am a student of religion, and there's a way in which I deeply believe that religion is at the heart of the humanities. Those worldviews of how we value what we believe, how we create, how we think about life and growth and death that make us human. Of course, we all know that some of our deepest human differences are also explored in religious terms. Sometimes religious symbolism as we know all too well has exploited those deepest human differences for political or economic or national ends. That is a challenge for us in the next millennium. We also know that our religious traditions have discovered some of the ways in which we as human beings are most deeply alike and most deeply human in the ways in which we discover a common humanity.
Religion, for better or worse, is not simply a box of doctrines or beliefs that's passed on from one generation to another, but is a dynamic, living entity. It includes all of the arguments between the people who feel that religions divide us and the people who feel that religions unite us. Those arguments are ongoing arguments, and they're part of our world today. They're also arguments that we see not only in the wider world, but we see in the United States with the new immigration and with old and new expressions of the religious diversity of humankind.
These really are, I think, the challenges that those of us in religion bring to the humanities as we look at the next millennium, both coming to know who our neighbors are, who "we" are when we say "We, the people of the United States of America," who is included in that "we." Because it's a much more complex "we" now than ever before. And also to begin to know these neighbors who are not simply neighbors on the other side of the world but neighbors often across the street.
What does it mean for the Hindu community rooted in India -- in all different parts of India -- to be building a big Hindu temple in the western suburbs of Nashville. How are they doing in Nashville? How are our Muslim neighbors doing with the brand new mosque that they've built in such glittering splendor in Cleveland? Or what does it mean for Fremont, California, to have Thai temples and a hillside terrace that's been renamed Gurdwarah Terrace because of the Sikh Gurdwarah? And a Thai temple with a backdrop in the painting of the Golden Gate bridge behind the image of the Buddha. Or across the town in Fremont to have a Methodist church in a mosque that built together, bought property together, built their new religious institutions side by side on a street that they named Peace Terrace.
These are really unwritten stories. They're ongoing stories. They're human stories. And I think on them hangs the story of the United States of America in the next millennium. Thank you.
WILLIAM FERRIS: We've been talking a lot about sense of place here. We had wonderful conversations over the last two days about sacred places in India, the Ganges, and those worlds in America and how much they share. One of the fascinating stories of humanities is the relationships between the humanistic community and the political worlds, and many great humanists have served as counsel to political leaders. None more eminently positioned than our next speaker, Arthur Schlesinger.
ARTHUR SCHLESINGER: Thank you. I suppose that in the century which lies almost immediately ahead -- when you think about that, slightly over 400 days from now we'll be in the year 2000 -- I think that this century or the millennium arrives or comes to an end at a very curious and exciting time in history. We are undergoing a structural change in our society, which is as deep running and as critical as we experienced 200 years ago.
Two hundred years ago we went through that shift from a farm-based economy to a factory-based economy that we call the Industrial Revolution. Today we are going through a shift from a factory-based economy to a computer-based economy. This in a certain sense will be more dynamic; it's more compressed, and is therefore more traumatic than the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution, after all, was spread out over two or three generations, allowing time for personal and social and institutional accommodation.
The computer revolution has already transformed life in the last decade, and each, every few months new generations of these incomprehensible instrumentalities appear. It's already deranged the whole balance of power between parents and children. [Audience laughter] When I was young, one expected one's parents to be the sources of all knowledge. Now parents are dependent on children to explain to them how to operate even the VCR. Whenever anything goes wrong with my computer, I always have to summon a child, or soon a grandchild to discover what went wrong.
Well, this is going to reprogram not only the external character of our lives, but our minds, too, in some way. Marshall McLuhan foresaw this a couple of decades ago, and it is now coming true. It's going to create all sorts of problems for education. I think education after the computer revolution has a double function. One is, of course, to teach kids how to survive in the computer-dominated world. Children show much more facility than adults in adapting to this. And I think this is obviously one very basic reorientation of education that is going to be required.
At the same time, it seems to me that this makes the humanities all the more important. Because with this challenge, this adaptation of minds to the computer age, the decisive significance of the great tradition, humane tradition becomes all the more evident. I suppose one of the great points of humanities is self- knowledge. Self-knowledge is going to be more acute, more necessary than ever, more imperative than ever in this age of transition, and a transition which, by Henry Adams' law of acceleration, is going to continue to increase the velocity of history and the rate of social change.
I think in this circumstance it would be very foolish to so reorient our educational purpose as to minimize, as to suggest that we have nothing more to learn from Plato, from Machiavelli, from Shakespeare, from the great novelists, from Hume, from William James, from Emerson. That is the core of the quest for self-knowledge. I think we have to figure out as with Isaiah, the change imposes this double obligation: on the one hand to train people to survive in a computer-dominated world and the other to preserve and revitalize the humane tradition which tells us more about ourselves. The greatest master of self-knowledge is obviously Shakespeare. Shakespeare continues to astonish, not only by the brilliance and ingenuity of his language, but by the penetration into and insights into human motivation, human character, human fate.
I will accede to Diana that religion also has a role in this. I'm not deeply religious, or at all religious myself, but I must say that one of the men who taught me most was the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Whatever form the insight of promotion, the conquest of self-knowledge takes, it is the humane tradition. It is what the humanities are all about. I hope that the coming generations will find means of promoting, advancing, persuading people this is what they should be thinking about. Thank you.
WILLIAM FERRIS: We are seeking to reach beyond the classroom with the humanities into underserved worlds, such as prisons. No one has broken new roads more boldly and successfully than our next visitor and speaker, Nancy Gaj.
NANCY GAJ: Good morning. As a literacy educator I wanted to do this morning what it is I usually do, and so I'm going to read a children's book to you. You all here will be at a disadvantage because I'm going to show the pictures. [Audience laughter]
I want to read a book to you that I grew up with. It's a book by the title The Carrot Seed. Some of you may remember this book. It's a story by Ruth Krause, pictures by Crockett Johnson.
"A little boy planted a carrot seed. His mother said, 'I'm afraid it won't come up.' His father said, 'I'm afraid it won't come up.' And his big brother said, 'It won't come up.'
"Every day the little boy pulled up the weeds around the seed and sprinkled the ground with water, but nothing came up. And nothing came up. Everyone said it wouldn't come up. But he still pulled up the weeds around it every day and sprinkled the ground with water.
"And then one day, a carrot came up. Just as the little boy had known it would."
Really, the reading of a story like this shows, I think, how the humanities enter the lives of most of us, if they are to enter at all. And it's through the hearing of a story, however simple, read or told by someone important to you, someone who knows you. It's this simple and profound experience that you have early on that ties you, that enables you, to understand and love what the humanities can be for you.
I think that in the hearing of a story like this each of us connects to something, someone, someplace, something that came before, something that we may anticipate in a way that's particular to us, but in fact is quite universal. In the hearing and the telling and the reading of a story like this, we learn much of what the humanities has to offer. In this story, we find challenge. We find insight. We find solace. We find affirmation. And, I think, most of all, as with all humanities, we find hope. This is an experience that all children should have. Thank you.
WILLIAM FERRIS: At the beginning of this century, Du Bois remarked that race is a central issue of our time, and as we approach the millennium and the next century, those words are just as appropriate as ever. No American has done more to move the issues and concerns and the rich history and legacy of African American culture into the humanities in a central role than Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Skip is an old and dear friend. I knew him first as a student, and I followed his meteoric career with enormous pleasure. It is both a professional and a personal pleasure to invite him to the podium.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: Thank you, Bill. You all have to, you're just getting to know Bill. How long have you been here?
WILLIAM FERRIS: Since January.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: Since January. He's a nice guy, but he lies his butt off, so -- [audience laughter] So you've got to cut what he says, you know, in half. You know, I was sitting here -- When I came in, a car came and picked me up at the hotel, I came in by myself. And I had all these sort of butterflies in my stomach. I was thinking, "And why do I have butterflies in my stomach? Why?"
And then finally, when Arthur was speaking I remembered the last time I was in this room, what I was doing. I was about to debate Lynne Cheney. [Audience laughter] We had the thriller in Manila in this room. And then she took me up to the chairman's office and beat me up some more. But it's great to be back. It's the first time I've ever come in here not asking for money.
You know, a few years ago I was invited by John Hope Franklin and Bill Coleman, William Coleman, and Leon Higgenbotham to attend when they got the Medal of Freedom. And it was in the White House, and I thought, "God, you know, such an impressive ceremony." I thought it would be great to get one of these things. But these guys, I counted their ages collectively. They were 210 years old. So I thought maybe if I left a resume under the chair someone would find it in about 2020 and invite me down to get one of these medals. So it never occurred to me that I would be one of the recipients of this prestigious medal.
So I was on Martha's Vineyard in August where my family tends to go. And my secretary Joanne called me and said, "Someone named Bill Ferris is trying to reach you." And I said, "Oh, God." She said, I said, "Did he say what he wanted?" She said, "No." And I said, "He wants me to be on a committee. Either that or my last grant proposal is overspent." I said, "Tell him I'm on vacation and you can't reach me." She said, "No, you've got to, he has really good news."
So I was thinking of -- as I was sitting by the beach and was working on this book on ancient African culture which I'm trying to finish -- and I was thinking, "What in the world can Bill Ferris be calling me about that's good news?" And I said, "Maybe Ray Lum has come back from the dead." For those of you who don't know, that's one of Bill's books. Ray Lum was, was he a mule caller, is that what you called him?
WILLIAM FERRIS: Mule trader.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: Mule trader, yes. That was a cultural experience with Yale University when Ray Lum, the mule trader, came to Calhoun College [audience laughter] But when Bill finally reached me and told me, I mean, you could have knocked me over with a feather. It's a truly -- My life has been blessed in so many ways, and it's truly one of the great honors, genuinely of my whole life. And there are many people in this room, staff of NEH, who really directly in some ways and indirectly are responsible for me being here.
I've been an advocate of African American studies for as long as I can remember. And for as long as I can remember, various chairs and various staff people in this room have been offering me advice and counsel about research projects. Research projects that have been funded by the NEH since 1979. Starting with the chairman's grant from Joe Duffy, $15,000 because John Blasingame and I had found literature published in a black newspaper. And then we looked in other black newspapers. And it turned out we were finding hundreds and hundreds of poems and short stories and literary notices and book reviews published in black American newspapers, newspapers edited by African Americans published in French and English since 1827 in this country, which is when Freedom's Journal, the first black newspaper was published. And we had this crazy idea that if we just got a little bit of money maybe we could find two or three hundred pieces of this literature and effect the canon of African American literature.
Well, I think we finally did what Lyndon Johnson was not able to do, which was declare victory and retreat, because after 15, 16 years, we had found over 40,000 pieces of literature published in these black newspapers and magazines, including 150 serialized novels. When we started, we only knew about 1200 novels published by African Americans between 1852 and 1979. So we increased the canon of African American literature just by, the canon of African American novels through this research project by some 12% just through that project alone. And it was your faith and confidence in a 29-year-old assistant professor that made that project possible. Giving me so much encouragement for so many projects that I would keep you here all morning.
With the Encyclopedia Africana, which is, was, W.E.B. Du Bois wanted to edit the Encyclopedia Africana, a black Britannica in 1909, and he could never get the funding to do it. In 1934, he was, in many ways, at the peak of his career and the most radical. He needed $250,000. He had a commitment for $125,000 from the Carnegie Foundation. Another foundation had pledged to match it, but Melville Herschkovitz, the great Africanist, was a rival of Du Bois, lobbied against this grant proposal. Du Bois and Rayford Logan, also a Harvard-trained historian, sat in Du Bois's office at the NAACP with a bottle of champagne chilling, waiting for the phone call saying that they had gotten the other $125,000. And, as Rayford Logan told me, the phone call never came. Du Bois was too radical.
1957, Nkrumah becomes president of the newly independent country, the Republic of Ghana, and one of the first things he did was invite Du Bois to repatriate, to renounce his American citizenship, return to Ghana, and edit the Encyclopedia Africana. Nkrumah, like Du Bois, was convinced that our people would never be free until we had an encyclopedia like everyone else. So in 1960, after Du Bois had retrieved his passport from the State Department, he joined the Communist Party, renounced his American citizenship, set sail for Ghana, and said that there was no hope for the American Negro. That white racism is so unflinching that it would never ever be palliated. And so he would be an African. And he died on the eve of the civil rights march, editing the Encyclopedia Africana.
Well, a couple years ago I came down to talk to Sheldon Hackney, and I said, "Sheldon, this is a great dream. It's been a great dream of hundreds and hundreds of people. If, I think, I'm going to go out to Seattle to Microsoft, and if I can't pull this out, I mean, that's my Hail Mary pass. If I can't pull this out, can I count on the Endowment?" He said, "You can count on us. This is important." And we showed him a demonstration of our CD-ROM, and, miracle of miracles, I went to Seattle and Microsoft funded the project and on January 15th, Dr. King's birthday, we'll give the great Du Bois a birthday present. Ninety years after he dreamed it, we will publish the Encyclopedia Africana, both on CD-ROM and as a book, and it will be dedicated in memory of the great Du Bois and in honor of Nelson Mandela.
For me, the humanities represents what I once called "the multiplicity of human life in culture." The multiplicity of human life in culture. It thrives on diversity. We cannot even imagine a truly American culture that is not multiple in its roots and multiple in its branches. We've just been in denial about it. And Bill Ferris and I had the great good fortune of having a common mentor, a black man called Charles Davis, who was the first tenured professor, black person who was tenured as a professor of English at Yale, and Charles taught us and shared with us an encompassing vision of what the humanities were, what the liberal arts were. That it included the best that has been thought and felt by all people, and not just people who happen to, who had the good fortune of being born under the arch of Greco-Roman Judaic-Christian culture. That truth and beauty came in all forms and sizes and shapes and colors, and it was our job as younger scholars to find that truth and beauty and to restore it to the curriculum.
And so my final word is that we all have to, as we head into the twenty-first century, find comfort and solace in the rough magic of the American cultural mix, however imperfect and however mutable that cultural mix might be. That is the challenge facing the humanities and those of us who are humanists in the twenty-first century. And with your continued cooperation, we hope to realize that grand and magnificent goal. Thank you very much.
WILLIAM FERRIS: I think of that diversity a little like a quilt, a patchwork quilt, as a folklorist, with many colors all forming a beautiful, single piece. And in quest of diversity and reaching across borders, no one has done more than our next speaker who coincidentally is one of us. He is a former staff person at the Endowment. He has written and spoken eloquently on the issues of the border and Mexican American cultures in particular. Please welcome Ramon Eduardo Ruiz.
RAMON EDUARDO RUIZ: I'm an historian. And I'm an historian because I believe passionately in the importance of history. And I believe in history because I think it encompasses all of the so-called humanities and perhaps is even the mother of what we call the social sciences. I believe in that history because I can, through my interest in history, read literature. I don't think you can write history without a knowledge of literature. I employ novels as much as possible in everything I do. And I enjoy reading novels, not only because of the content in a novel but also because I think history is an art.
And art means writing not just simply for other specialists. It means writing for the general public. And in my many years of writing, and now I'm getting old, I have written a great many books. And I've tried, I've tried very hard to write so that people who aren't specialists will know what I am saying. I hate jargon. And I think jargon is a scoundrel's past or use. It's the inability to confess that you don't really have a theory or some kind of new idea. And therefore what you have to do is to cloak it in jargon so that you confuse those who are going to attempt to read what you have to say. [Audience laughter]
Now, I also believe in history because it's the surest way of knowing what a people are, what a country is, and so on and so forth. Without a knowledge of history, we end up not knowing much about what this country has been in the past, what it will be in the future. And we end up supporting all kinds of nonsense, legislation, and bigotry. History helps us to understand what a country is all about.
But in my case, I have a very personal reason for working on history. In this country, and I've lived in this country for many, many years, the hostility to people who are not of European background, northern European background, is often rather obvious. Especially when I was young. It's better now, or at least not as pronounced, but it still hangs heavy. I think if you look in the records of the NEH, you will find that very few grants have been given out to people of Mexican descent. That's obvious. I know something else since I worked here one year as director of the Division of Public Programs that the program officers oftentimes picked people who are like themselves. And very few people of my background are asked to serve on these panels. And therefore, people who should be applying of my background are discouraged from applying. And when they do, they seldom are given a fair chance.
Now, history also is important to me in that vein because without a knowledge of history, you will not know who you are. And, in this country, again to repeat what I said before, if you don't know who you are and you're of Mexican background as I am, then things can be quite complicated and quite difficult. It is the sense of history that gives you that sense of pride, el orgullo, orgullo personal, el honor, as my father used to say and my mother would echo, that makes you stand up and be counted. And that can only come if you know what your past is all about. If you know who Mariano Ezuela was. If you read the people who write today in Mexico. Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, and many others. But you can go back, too, to Mariano Ezuela and to the 19th century novelists of Mexico who talked about building a nation, a patriotic nation and so forth in order to build something that was Mexico for the first time.
And when you do this, you begin to see just where you came from, where your parents came from. You look at Cervantes, Lope de Vega, and others of the Golden Age in Spain, the great painters of Mexico -- Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, Siqueros, and the painters of the Golden Age of Spain -- and you know you come from something that is equal to any other culture in the world. And when you know that, you stand tall. You stand tall, and you do not have to worry about what others think of you or what others say about the importance of certain histories over your history because that is nonsense. That is nonsense.
And that's what I try to teach my students while I taught, and that's what I try to say in what I write, which is always on Mexico, with one exception. I once wrote a book on the Cuban revolution because it seemed to me that something was going on in Cuba that was absolutely unique in the history of Latin America. And it continues to be unique despite American prejudices and the terrible writing that has been done on Cuba by people who are bigoted and who are misinformed. Now, that's why I'm a historian, and that's why I hope that this Endowment here will continue to view history, which is one of the humanities but also one of the social sciences, as something that merits your support. Thank you very much.
WILLIAM FERRIS: Well, I pledge to you that we are moving the ship in the direction of diversity in exploring every American's history and culture and the places that they revere and see as their own. I think the connections of political and humanities and the worlds of academe and our culture in general are rich and complex, and no one has done more to unravel those and to share them in a very public way than our final speaker, Garry Wills.
GARRY WILLS: "The tale of the end of Troy will have no ending." That was what Chesterton said. The Iliad has never been superseded. In fact, he said, "If you are going to sum up the human mystery and the human achievement, no matter how long history runs on, the last man or woman alive can do no better than quote the Iliad and die."
Now I think that explains one thing about the humanities. The sciences build on the past, on past knowledge, and reject what has been disproven and move on. So that it's a matter of historical curiosity but not of real scientific enquiry to learn the biology of Aristotle. That has been superseded, and even his aesthetics have been superseded, and certainly his cosmology in a way that Homer has not.
Now, there's one extreme statement of that view that should be fought. Namely, that human nature is always the same. Well, it isn't, thank God. There is progress, not only in science, not only in the accumulated factual knowledge of mankind. There is, however sporadic and spotty and struggling, moral progress. Although we have not superseded Homer, there has definitely been moral progress since his time in areas like slavery, individual rights, racism, gender inequities, things of that sort.
So to say that human nature is always the same, it seems to me, is quite wrong. We now recognize, which very recently people did not recognize, that to be true to the Western tradition you have to transcend the Western tradition. That it is precisely a humanist value to be, as Skip says, multicultural. Not to exclude other parts of the human drama and mystery. So that has to be, that extreme has to be avoided on the one hand. On the other hand, what the lastingness of the Iliad tells me, it seems to me, is that we don't get up every morning and make ourselves out from scratch. Which is the ideal of some people now apparently. The difficulty with that, of course, is that any old thing you make of yourself is what you make of yourself. And since that's the only criterion, then anything goes.
So, there's a very delicate negotiating process, it seems to me, between these two extremes. And the touchstone for that is, as Arthur said, Shakespeare and as Chesterton said, Homer. And as Ed Doctorow said, fiction. In fact, I think in his honor, we might recast the Chesterton sentence and say, "The tale of the human tale will have no ending."
WILLIAM FERRIS: Southerners are fond of storytelling. I think that's an important note to move ahead. My grandfather often said that he had been raised on cornbread and recollections, and I think one, as we move into the question period, I would like to recognize also a group who, while they did not receive medals, deserve enormous credit. These are the parents, the children, the spouses, and in some cases, grandchildren of our awardees. I would like for you, please, to stand and be recognized.
Now the fun starts. I have a mike, and anyone with a question, I'll bring it to you, and we will continue. Are there any questions?
QUESTION: This question is not directed to anyone in particular, but several of your remarks made me, particularly about the relationship between the humanities and the sciences, made me think of the most recent revelation of science about the DNA connection between heirs of Sally Hemings and the third president of the United States. It's not clear to me, I think maybe it's not clear to the people who wrote the articles I've read about this, what the meaning of this is. And I wonder if any of you have given some thought to this and have decided what meaning we are to attribute to this scientific revelation.
GARRY WILLS: The example of the way the humanities can use science to find out important things. I was a doubter about Sally Hemings, but I, in a way, welcome this because it helps to explicate some of the things that I feel about him, derived largely from Henry Adams, who is very sympathetic to Southerners and Virginians in general. Worshiped George Washington et cetera, but had a very strong antipathy to Thomas Jefferson, oddly enough because in some ways they're alike.
But the one thing that they were different in is that he said Thomas Jefferson had absolutely no sense of humor and no self- knowledge. That he never saw his contradictions for what they were. He never saw what a fool he made of himself at certain times. He never had a sense of himself, and he was a kind of compulsive collector of all this information, which, in general, he did nothing with. You know, if you go through his life and look at the hours and hours and hours he spent day by day collecting meteorological data, which he never did anything with. It was just there, and it was, he liked the collecting. Whereas Benjamin Franklin saw one oddity in a storm at sea and came up with a breathtaking new theory about meteorology.
Anyway, I think that the kind of human coldness of Jefferson and his ability to compartmentalize his life is, fits very well with the use of this slave woman. And in this, I still think Fawn Brody was wrong. Fawn Brody had a redemption of this cold fish by the fact that he had a warm and deep and loving relationship with Sally. I think that totally misreads his character. I don't think, I think it was exploitative, and that he didn't realize that it was exploitative, and that that just gives us some more evidence to put on the side of the Henry Adams interpretation.
QUESTION: I wonder if any one of you would care to comment on the growing similarity between the indeterminacy in the humanities and the growing indeterminacy in the so-called hard sciences. That increasingly even in this last question what we can predict in the hard sciences is precisely simply a level of probability. Is this not a way in which in the twenty-first century the sciences and the humanities will come together?
ARTHUR SCHLESINGER: I think that the attack on history as being a social construction, almost indistinguishable from fiction. I think that that kind of attack, the post-modernist attack, has receded in recent times. It had its great vogue when the French theorists, now little read in France, like Foucault and so on, had a certain vogue in Britain and the United States. But I think the notion that everyone agrees that objectivity is impossible. The question is whether this is an unattainable objective, but nonetheless, I think most working historians regard it as an objective, to be striven after even if it cannot be attained, and most working historians feel that there was a past, that real things took place there, that some of these things are verifiable; some are speculative.
I mean, we'll never know actually, Garry, what the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings was. I'm also inclined to the Henry Adams view of Jefferson, but it's impossible -- the inwardness of love affairs or of marriages is impenetrable. It's often disguised even by the participants. [Audience laughter]. They conceal it from themselves. But it's very hard. That kind of thing is of an inscrutability of personal relationships, particularly those based on love, is perennial. So there are mysteries which will never be plumbed by historians. Nonetheless, the effort to seek them out remains the moral purpose of history, and I think the belief that the past is something which we create, and that there's no essential distinction between the works of the historian and the work of the novelist, is something that is passing out of fashion as far as history is concerned. So that the, everything is indeterminate.
By theology we are all erring mortals. As Lincoln said, "The Almighty has His own purposes." And, certainly, if there is an Almighty, He does have His own purposes. There's nothing worse than people who think they know the purposes of the Almighty and can execute His will, as Mr. Dooley -- Mr. Dooley's definition of a fanatic: A fanatic is a man who does what the good Lord would do if He only knew the facts in the case. [Audience laughter] But, given the limitations of human deception, I think that the historian, the working historian at any rate, continues to believe that there was a past, that things took place there, that real people existed, and that our obligation is to ascertain as emphatically and persuasively as we can what took place.
RAMON EDUARDO RUIZ: There's a wonderful book by an English historian who died a few years ago, E.H. Carr. And the title of that small book is called What Is History? I think it's perhaps the best thing I know of for the study of what is history. Now, on this question that has been raised, the relationship between science and history, you know, Carr says, and I agree with him, and many others also agree, that science also is not a hard science. For, over time, ideas, concepts, theorems, and so on and so forth that were thought at one time to be exact in science have been modified if not rejected.
Now, the historian works in a similar fashion. The problem is that not all historians are equal, and you must bear that in mind. A good historian, a great historian, is far different from an average historian. Now, we all try to be good historians, and we all strive for objectivity. Some, however, are more apt to become objective than others. The preparation of the historian is crucial here. It requires a broad background, a broad cultural background. A knowledge, I think, of many languages, the more the better. A knowledge of all kinds of history. The history of many countries in order to understand the history we're writing about. And if we have that background, and if we strive as Carr says for objectivity -- knowing full well that total objectivity can never be achieved -- we, I think, achieve more that is better history, a history that is more valid, and that's apt to stand the test of time more than other kinds of histories.
But history, you know, is also a reflection of our time. We are offsprings of the social milieu. Today, in this neoliberal age in this country, historians on the whole tend to reflect these mores. And, I think, eventually, you know, as we find out that neoliberalism is a collapsing concept as it always has been since it began back in the time of the discovery of the Americas, that we will change our views. And historians will change their views, too, and reflect these changes.
So, yes, history, you know, does change. And not all histories are equally valid. But there is still no substitute for the study of history and especially the study of history by people who are especially competent and who strive for objectivity.
QUESTION: Your passion for your work is infectious, and it's very inspiring. We spend a lot of time at NEH worrying about the fact that we're preaching to a choir of people who are already on a road of intellectual curiosity. And I want to pose a question as to whether you are worried about the so- called dumbing down of culture and whether you might offer us the benefit of your experience for how we might create pathways to people who spend more time worrying about what sneakers Michael Jordan is wearing than things that we might be wholly consumed by. How can we help as a federal agency to create those connections to the joys of intellectual curiosity?
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: I don't know how the NEH can do it. I can't answer your question directly, but let me tell you what I've been thinking about. I was thinking of Arthur's phrase about the humanities and the relationship between, well the relationship between the humanities and self-knowledge. It sounds like a great working definition of the humanities to me.
Then there's a collective self and an individual self. What's that collective self? Does it mean -- Well, it means various things, right? Being American at the end of the century, being an African-American or being a male or being more or less Episcopalian, or one of 10,000 other identities that each of us has.
But what I'm concerned about it is the computer gap. This transition that Arthur described so well, between a factory economy and a computer economy and its relationship to the African American community, many of whose members do worry unduly about the kinds of Nikes that they wear.
What can we do, as scholars of African American studies, as professors at the university, about the common culture that our own people are experiencing and learning or not experiencing and learning? And how do we get them to understand themselves, their collective selves, their African American history as well as larger American history and computer technology at the same time?
I think, we're about to approach the churches in the African American community about turning Sunday schools into Hebrew schools, for lack of a better term. I probably won't use that when I speak to the National Baptists Association. [Audience laughter] But there are 14 million black Baptists in the United States.
I remember when Colin Powell called one day to say, the night before the Million Man March, to say that he wasn't going to be there and that I should watch -- He was on CBS Morning News, and he was going to give his statement about the Million Man March. And he said, "But I'm going to tell you: Check out that march tomorrow because a million men will be there." And I said, "Do you really think so?" I call him General. How many black people can you call General with a straight face?
"General, do you really think that's going to happen?" And he said, yeah, because he was on his book tour at that time. So he said, "The only thing that's wrong with this march is, the pity about it is that Farrakhan called it." And I said, "But, General, who else could call it? You couldn't call it. Jesse couldn't call it. God knows, I couldn't call it. Only Farrakhan could call it." So I was telling Cornell West about this conversation two days later, and he said, "You both were wrong. The National Black Baptists could have called it."
Because there are so many. And it we can turn our Sunday schools -- keep God and Jesus and heaven and all that stuff there -- but introduce computers and CD-ROMS and maybe your religion CD-ROM or maybe even the Encyclopedia Africana or whatever -- but turn it into black history schools. The way Jewish people did. If Jewish people had waited for the state to subsidize Hebrew schools, there wouldn't be Jewish people. And that's what we have to do inside the race as it were. You know, among our own people. And then seek funding, you know, for that kind of program where that's appropriate. Maybe, you know, maybe that kind of proposal would end up at a place like this.
But I think that this sort of self-knowledge, not at the exclusion, as Garry alluded to, not at the exclusion of other forms of knowledge, not at the expense of access to our other larger identities, but certainly as a fundamental part of our educational process, should be something that concerns us. And that we have to bring education about technology, a global economy, a global culture, together with the specificity of our cultural identity not as an end in itself, but to transcend those very ends. So that people get hooked on learning, hooked on self-knowledge, and then their knowledge of what the self is will only broaden. I think that that's the way that we in the African American community have to go. Otherwise our people are going to be in worse shape than they are today.
DIANA ECK: Could I just say one thing about that because I also produced a CD-ROM On Common Ground: World Religions in America, and the energy behind producing CD- ROM technology is really that -- It's not to replace a book because I like books better myself actually, but that you have the advantage as teaching tools of having people whose voices you actually hear. Whose songs you hear. Whose differences you can hear through the technology of the computer. And that's something that is, it's not just the sort of manipulation of data and the sort of vast quantities of information unfiltered through any kind of valuing mind that the computer gives us access to.
It gives us access to people, and the reason I think this is important in terms of teaching religion, which I think is a very important part of teaching in the public schools, and in fact is mandated in the state of California and Texas and North Carolina, but teachers are still very shy in many cases about steering into the teaching of religion in social sciences and American history even though it's so much a part of our history, even though our Chinese Buddhist history goes back to, you know, the 1850s, and our Sikh history goes back to the nineteen teens. And our Islamic history goes back to the slave trade.
We don't actually know that much about our own history and our own present, and it's an important thing to teach in the schools. But most teachers are anxious about it because of the whole issue of representation. And representation is a hard thing in religion. One voice representing a whole religious tradition, interpreting it for the students, the classroom.
So what CD-ROM computer technology can give you is the multivocality of religious traditions. You don't have to listen to one Muslim or one Jew talking about Judaism, but to a number of Muslims talking about whether or not you do have to wear the head covering so that you don't get the sense that there's only one point of view. And I think that relieves, you know, off the shoulders of teachers potentially, tremendous issues of the burden of representation around some of our most sensitive issues.
And I agree that the locus of education isn't just in our public schools, though I think that is so important, but in the whole realm of educational institutions, which include not only our Sunday schools and churches and synagogues but also the growing plethora of Islamic weekend schools and Islamic full time schools in the United States, which are growing by leaps and bounds. Outreach to these kinds of institutions. To Hindu summer camps and Sikh summer camps and the many summer forms of identity building and learning that are part of who we have been and who we certainly are in terms of developing new communities for education.
CD-ROM, we're also using in the military and in hospitals, in places where the knowledge of our growing diversity is really needed and which become some of the formats in institutions of learning therefore.
E.L. DOCTOROW: I propose to answer all the questions immediately in one copiously illustrated sentence, and then I have to leave. But I think in order to answer your question, I would refer to the need to look at the effect of film and film technology in the past hundred years on culture and on thinking. I think the effect has been enormous, and if you sort of live by words as I do, you tend to think of film as so dominant as to -- well, people use the term "film language," which I think is an oxymoron. Unless you accept hieroglyphics as a language, there's a kind of preliterate communication that people get from film.
And a director told me that by the time that you put the camera in a certain place at a certain angle and dress the scene and light the scene and dress the actors and fix their hair -- because hair is very important because it gives you a sense of economic status of a character, his education, and so on and so forth. Until you do all that and play a little music in the background, 98 percent of the meaning of that scene is delivered before anybody says a word.
Now that's a very, very important thing. And it seems to me if you wanted to grapple with the differentiation between people, ordinary people, and people who think about these subjects, you would have to convene thinkers and people to deal with the way meaning and values are conferred by film in a preliterate way and the effect on culture and on language and on the tradition of thinking through language, whether you're a historian or philosopher or theologian.
Which leads me to the final point of the question about the indeterminacy of science. It does seem to be, seem as science constantly, as Garry Wills says, revises itself and rejects previous theories, there does seem to be a sense of -- An old science teacher of mine said, "If science is a searchlight into the darkness, as the beam widens and its circumference increases, the area of darkness increases." And that seems to be what is happening in science. But if you think about the cosmologists, they may be getting a little closer to the theologians in a way that's not all that indeterminate, and which reflects the blurring of genres generally as historians are beginning to write fiction, and as the social scientists tell their stories taking my techniques of conflict and suspense and applying it to their anthropological and sociological studies, there is a sense I get in the culture of the past 20 or 30 years of everything coming together in ways that could be thrilling but also very dangerous.
I'm not sure I've made my point, but this is a wonderful, these are two wonderful questions, and if we had another six or eight hours perhaps we could get to them. Thank you. I've got to go. [Applause]
NANCY GAJ: I wanted to respond briefly to that question, too, in a very specific way. I think one of the things that the Endowment could do is to reach out more, reach out where you're not comfortable. Reach out to communities and with projects and with initiatives that are different. That you probably cannot imagine from within this building nor from within your own experience. I think there are many projects; there are many ways to bring people in, and I think it addresses a lot of the issues we've talked about this morning: the blurring, the blending. It depends on where you stand as to what that looks like.
And I think one of the things that I have found to be true about the Endowment is that it has a tremendous power to be able to lift communities up, individual efforts up, shine a spotlight on, and I think if you feel like you're preaching to the choir, maybe leave the church or leave the mosque or leave the temple. You know, there's a big neighborhood; there's lots of neighborhoods, and I think that what you all will have to do is go where the people are. The people are not necessarily going to come here.
And I think you see people on this panel who have done a wonderful job of representing the interests, the voices, the points of view of literally thousands and millions of people when they speak, when their work has been supported. And I think that that's the responsibility of the Endowment. Look for more people. Look for more projects. Leave this building. Find a different choir. Go to a different sanctuary. Go in a temple. Go somewhere different because that's where the different work will be done. [Applause]
GARRY WILLS: I'd like to say just one word because I find Skip's idea so exciting. But I think the model should probably not be Hebrew schools, as Alan Dershowitz and others have said, they're quite etiolated now. A very good model is the religious Right. When I was working on an article about home schooling, that astounded me that of course, they have to use computers in home schooling. But the Right has adopted the computer technology with tremendous success, and their kids are trained out from the very earliest time to use computers, and it goes along with this reactionary theology and everything. You know, you use a computer to prove that evolution didn't happen. It seems very odd, but of course, we can use the same tools.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: Sure. That's a good idea.
WILLIAM FERRIS: Well, I want to sort of express thanks and reflect on what the President and First Lady said earlier, that each of you honor our nation and especially this Endowment by being here accepting these awards and giving a broader vision to what we do each day. And on behalf of all 165 of our staff here at the Endowment, I want to say again our profound thanks to you for being here. Some of you have to rush to flights, but if you have a few minutes, I know our staff would love to visit with you. And let me say to all of the Endowment staff how grateful I am to you for the hard work you do each day to make all of these worlds connect. And we will follow your counsel in trying to broaden and deepen our vision with your thoughts in mind. Thank you all. [Applause]