The Keeper of the Stories

“The Keeper of the Stories”

NEH Chairman Jon Parrish Peede

National Humanities Conference
Honolulu, Hawai’i
November 8, 2019

I’m honored to come before you for a third time to deliver this annual address. While each speech stands on its own, I tend to think in terms of trilogies. Thus, I see this occasion as an opportunity to expand on my previous thinking.

Since you first extended your hand of friendship, I have traveled to 38 states in addition to our home humanities council in Washington, D.C. And I will be adding two Oceanic territories next week.

Though we did not plan it this way on purpose, in the past three months, I will have traveled to the easternmost state, Maine; the northernmost state, Alaska; and the southernmost state of Hawai’i. There is a complicated bit of thinking about the prime meridian that makes Alaska’s Aleutian Islands west of Hawai’i, but we need not get into that matter; whatever is your west, NEH has been there recently. The Humanities Endowment is coming to you because that is how we learn from you, that is how we are in relationship with you.

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I like to begin with poetry, and it seems natural to recite W. S. Merwin, the former U.S. poet laureate who passed away this year. Merwin spent the last forty years of his life in Hawai’i and willed his once-depleted land in Maui to become an ecological preserve of palm plants. I met him only once, but his peacefulness came through. His poem “At the Same Time” functions like a koan, which is fitting because he was a Zen Buddhist. The poem reads in full, with no punctuation:

While we talk
thousands of languages are listening

saying nothing

while we close a door
flocks of birds are flying through winters

of endless light

while we sign our names
more of us

lets go

and will never answer[i]

Merwin is warning us, in his manner, to not turn away from the storyteller, to not turn away from the story. [ii]We should heed him.

With Aiko Yamashiro and her team at Hawai’i Council for the Humanities, I do not worry about their commitment to story, rather my mind is focused in ensuring that we support their efforts and your efforts more fully. 

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My parents brought my three young brothers and me to Honolulu some forty years ago. We spent a week or so traveling this island, dressed identically in local clothes like nesting dolls. I remember Don Ho serenading my mother, the parrot that bit one brother, the heavy dinner glasses made from lava that we brought home and drank from for years, and, of course, I remember the exquisite ocean framing the first and last view of each day. It was probably the best family trip we ever had. And, like so many moments in youth, it planted later interests, especially my interest in military history. What the battlefield in Vicksburg at home did for my interest in the Civil War, visiting the USS Arizona Memorial and Pearl Harbor did for my lifelong reading about World War II.

I felt a special pride this year in awarding a $60,000 NEH Research Fellowship to scholar Laura Margaret McGuire at the University of Hawai’i to write a critical biography of architect Alfred Preis, the designer of the USS Arizona Memorial. The book will examine his flight from Hitler’s Austria to Hawai’i in 1939, and how his status as an immigrant and his Vienna experiences impacted his professional success, his vision for regional Hawaiian modernism, and influence on American architectural design.

Through this conference, I hope that we can all carry home a deeper and more holistic understanding of Hawai’i as a part of the American story, as a part of the Pacific Islander story, as a global story. And funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities has played an important role in making these connections.

Since 1965, NEH has awarded $41.6 million in grants in Hawai’i. In the past decade, the Hawai’i Council for the Humanities received $5 million from NEH to support programs across the Hawaiian Islands. In particular, I want to affirm three of the council’s programs, Hawai’i History Day, the Motheread/Fatheread Hawai’i family literacy program, and the “Try Think and Reading and Discussion Programs,” which includes an innovative program called “p4c Hawai’i,” a community discussion program that mobilizes philosophy for children to encourage reflective communities of inquiry.

NEH has awarded major direct grants to the state, too. Just in the Honolulu area, NEH has funded in the past few years numerous organizations, including veteran reintegration programs at the University of Hawai’i, and a multiyear project to greatly increase the descriptive metadata for all the Pacific language material within the University of Hawai’i at Manoa Library Pacific Collection. We have funded K–12 teacher and university professor institutes at the East-West Center; Native Hawaiian cultural resources access at the Manoa Heritage Center; a grant to the Bernice P. Bishop Museum to develop a master preservation plan for the world’s largest Hawaiian and Pacific archaeology collections; and two grants, totaling nearly $500,000, for a group of new permanent exhibitions, including interactive experiences, at the Iolani Palace of 1882.

In Guam, we have awarded more than $9 million in funding—with all of the funding in the past ten years going directly to Humanities Guahan. They have, in turn, supported projects centered on ecological literacy, civic reflection, and the “Women Warriors” online oral history project for females serving in the U.S. military and those returning to civilian life. They used NEH funding for “The Micronesian Question,” a multi-faceted project on migration, identity, and belonging in Guam. This project was part of the NEH “We the People” program a decade ago, and would certainly fit with our current efforts, as you will hear.

A short flight away from Guam are the Northern Mariana Islands. Since 1990, NEH has awarded $8.5 million to the islands, all of our funding to the council. The latest Humanities magazine opens with an article on their weekly half-hour radio show. The council has also received funding to help cultural heritage workers learn important new techniques for collection care, and they run numerous other projects from oral histories to the governor’s humanities awards to the literacy program Motheread/Fatheread.

NEH has awarded $7 million in grants in American Samoa since 1977. The Amerika Samoa Humanities Council, the newest council, was established in 1995. Since that time the council has used NEH funding for programs such as the publication of The Women of American Samoa, the story of the achievements of 100 women during its first century as a territory; a summer institute for schoolteachers on teaching American Samoan history; a Samoan-language reading program for elementary schoolchildren; and the creation of a history that has been adopted by the American Samoa Department of Education for teaching Samoan history. The council also received NEH emergency funds to help protect a large collection of artifacts of Samoan culture at the Jean P. Haydon Museum, following a 2009 tsunami.

In a few days, I will travel on to Guam, then to Saipan, and then home again. They are 3,700 miles away from this city but looked close on the map—which is another way of saying we need to reform the teaching of geography on the mainland. Truly, I’m proud to be the first NEH Chairman to travel to either in an official capacity. I hope to visit American Samoa in the future; and in recognition that its council is led by a high talking chief, I have named this speech “The Keeper of the Stories.”

Running a state or territorial humanities council, leading a cultural organization or academic body or university or college, requires many of the same talents as being such a chief—especially a gift for truly listening.

You must focus on community, have a clear vision, build a strong team, empower partners, focus on outcomes over activities, grow the audience, document the path, expand the playing field, conserve resources, leave a legacy.

It all starts with listening. And, yes, it helps to have a good budget.

With a $155 million budget, the largest in a decade, NEH is able to make a significant impact in every state and territory through the humanities councils. And, of course, because of the dedicated NEH staff members.

I can report that both houses of Congress, both political parties, have explicitly stated their strong support for our reestablishment of the Challenge Grant program as an Infrastructure and Capacity-Building matching grant program. In its first three funding rounds, it has reached 36 states and Washington, D.C.

These new Challenge grants are underwriting historic preservation and heritage projects, driving cultural tourism and economic development, and advancing civic engagement and public education.

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Toward a More Perfect Union

Today, I will focus on two subjects: the importance of teaching history and civics in our K–12 and university classrooms and the importance of stories in our culture. I will be formal on the first matter and personal on the second.

As our nation approaches its 250th anniversary in 2026, NEH encourages projects that promote a deeper understanding of American history and culture and that advance civics education and knowledge of our core principles of government.

The agency-wide “A More Perfect Union” initiative will help Americans better understand the world’s oldest constitutional democracy and how our founding ideals are met in a modern, pluralistic society.

NEH welcomes consideration of diverse topics in American history, from Native American culture to rural life to the rise of the industrial city, from the Civil War to the Cold War to the civil rights movement, projects that examine foundational documents in U.S. history, as well as projects that examine historical objects, places, customs, traditions, events, and individuals who collectively shaped our states and nation. Applications about the contributions of under-represented communities are highly encouraged.

“A More Perfect Union” encourages projects that:

  • strengthen the nation’s humanities infrastructure to make it available to future generations,
  • advance civics education and knowledge of the country’s core principles of government,
  • help Americans understand the experiences of service members and veterans and assist them in returning to civilian life.

Our focus on the Semiquincentennial dovetails with a recently announced cooperative agreement that you will be hearing much more about next year and thereafter.

NEH, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education, has awarded a $650,000 cooperative agreement to the civics education group iCivics and its partners at Arizona State University, Harvard University, and Tufts University, to lead a coalition of experts in assessing the state of, and best practices in, the teaching of American history, civics, and government in K–12 education. All funding comes from the Department of Education, and our agency led the grantee selection process and will award the federal funds.

Educating for American Democracy: A Roadmap for Excellence in History and Civics Education for All Learners will bring together more than 100 leading academics and practitioners in education, civics, history, and political science for convenings to evaluate the current state of history and civics curricula across the country. Informed by these discussions, the group will issue a “roadmap for excellence” to outline for teachers, schools, and district and state policymakers high-priority civics content areas, and recommend instructional strategies and best practices for integrating the teaching of civics and history at every grade level.

As the United States looks toward our 250th anniversary as a nation in 2026, it is critical that our K–12 educational system teaches the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and the democratic principles on which our country was founded.

NEH wants to bring greater awareness to civics education and the importance of teaching civics, and we want to highlight ways to better deliver that knowledge for students. And if we and our educational partners fulfill these goals successfully, then it may impact teaching standards as a byproduct of bringing greater awareness to best practices, but that is not the core objective we are pursuing.

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On the Importance of Teaching U.S. History

When I first began discussing the importance of civics education two years ago, I will admit that some corners of the academic community were neutral about the objective because it sounded like a return to a seemingly outmoded pedagogical model. And I understand those concerns, even if I do not share them. I am indeed talking about learning historical facts and figures, but I insist that we do so in the context of what they mean to the greater narrative and the larger history.

For those who worry that I am recommending a 20th-century solution for 21st-century problems, rest assured that I am not. I am, in fact, recommending a 19th-century solution.

For on the topic of moral growth—on the topic of national moral growth—Frederick Douglass wrote:

A battle lost or won is easily described, understood, and
appreciated, but the moral growth of a great nation requires
reflection, as well as observation, to appreciate it.[iii]

I stand with Douglass—and that means I stand with you.

I can’t escape the inherent contradiction in the fact that we expect the young adults of our nation to defend our three-branch representative democracy, yet we no longer deign to teach them its core principles, nor its core attributes, not the least of which is its tremendous capacity for self-correction—one only need to watch the forthcoming NEH-funded PBS documentary on the Nineteenth Amendment to understand how our system of government uses the ballot box to effect societal change.

We need to require foundational knowledge of U.S. history in our colleges and universities as graduation criteria, or we need to concede publicly that understanding the core principles of how our government functions in a free society and representative democracy is no longer a societal goal.

There are any number of ways such knowledge can be conveyed inside and outside of the classroom, whether in a high school or a community college or a four-year institution. These need not be traditional courses for credit.

Many of our cultural organizations, such as the New-York Historical Society, have taken it upon themselves to fill the void left in the wake of an atomized curriculum built upon fascinating courses that nevertheless do not congeal into a system of sequential learning.

Yes, I am advocating for introductory survey courses.

But please do not hear me as beckoning back to the rather uniform manner that civics was taught a generation or two ago. Any basic introductory course on the Revolutionary War, for example, could bring together material culture from the paintings of Jacob Lawrence to traditional scholarly books, documentary films, podcasts, and educational games such as iCivics’s Race to Ratify, an NEH-funded educational resource on the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

There is no excuse for U.S. history to be out of favor, out of touch, or out of the curriculum.

We are past the tipping point in terms of the dominance of the humanities in the undergraduate curriculum, our culture, and our communities—but the humanities diffused are still the Humanities Everywhere.

We have to tackle the big questions, such as, What are the habits of mind that we want to instill in young people?

We have identified the problem over and over: the decline of civics education and the rise of historical illiteracy. Now we must move anew toward the solutions to be found in the humanities. There is nothing more clearly in the wheelhouse of the humanities, of the liberal arts, than uniting people through the development of their minds.

The humanities unveil lives, reveal cultures, explain nations to themselves and to the world.

The cultural argument I am making is that the humanities are most relevant when they are in the public sphere. If the humanities are to live only within campus walls, then that’s an impoverished vision of the humanities, and not sufficiently democratic.

Access is really important to me. Coming from a rural state, I cannot overemphasize how important it is to allow people, especially students, to have the arts and the humanities in their lives. And there should be no economic barriers to this. I have committed to civic engagement as an anchor to my chairmanship—which is to say, I have committed to access to knowledge across our seven grant lines.

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Toward a Conclusion: the Importance of Story

When I wrote deadline journalism, I was fixated on learning what the “Rosebud” moment was for each person that I profiled. “Rosebud”—that’s a reference from the movie Citizen Kane. I won’t explicate it beyond saying that it refers to a defining moment, and most of us have had such a moment or will have one in the fullness of life. The American South, of course, is part of my Rosebud. My childhood is, my three brothers and I together in a wild joyful roaring wad. As NEH embarks with iCivics and its project partners to develop a roadmap for teaching civics, I have turned more and more in my mind to how organic our learning used to be: in the classroom, in conversations in our yards and neighborhoods with veterans, on family vacations to historic sites overrun with tourists. Yes, there were major gaps in whose story was told and through what lens. We cannot forget that. But, now, as our cultural organizations have found the path toward sharing a more comprehensive story of our nation, at this very moment, we are losing our audiences to mere entertainment and mindless online distraction.

As Merwin cautioned in his poem, “While we talk / thousands of languages are listening / saying nothing.” We need to give them room to speak in society writ large. One way to do so is to ensure that in telling the national story, we are telling the local story. And while most of our own stories will reside outside museum collections and archives, I believe in the importance of elevating community stories and even personal stories as our nation approaches its 250th anniversary. From super typhoons to dust-bowl droughts, many of those stories are going to be about water and how it impacts us through its abundance or absence.

I’ll close with a brief personal story of how memory creates maps where geography would seem not to. When the Great Easter Flood of 1979 began to finally recede across Mississippi, my brothers and I took to the tangled soggy woods behind our house to search again for our canoe. Hours later, beneath a copse of trees, we saw the silver tongue of the bow, circles of caked mud at the rivets. We called our canoe The Unsinkable, and I think it was special to me because a few years before we had been here in Hawai’i on a catamaran with our mother and had watched the wind kick up her raven black hair (modeled after Jackie Kennedy’s) as we glided effortlessly on the cool blue water of this vast ocean. That was in my mind in the muggy woods, watching out for cottonmouth snakes as we four tried to pull that canoe free of the tangle of dead vines and briars toward the brown-yellow undergrowth at the edge of the waiting lake.

I know you surely have your own stories. I know our friend Esther Mackintosh has farm stories. There are stories we are going to learn here about Hawai’i, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa. We all have stories. And they all matter.

We can—and will—talk a lot at our state humanities councils and humanities organizations and universities about evolving teaching standards, and new strategies for content delivery, and such matters. I welcome those discussions. But, at the heart of things, we are simply being called to listen. To listen to one another, to learn from one another, to remember one another.

Standing here more than forty years beyond that moment with the canoe and still with the dirt of that place under my fingernails, how could I not believe down to the marrow of my bones that the telling of even one family’s story is the telling of America’s story? And if I believe it for my community, how could I not believe it for yours?

Indeed, how could I not believe it even more about your people and place, for my colleagues and I are traveling this vast nation from eastern Maine to the Northern Marianas, and we have seen the edges and the outline of your journey and the magnitude of it and the bravery of it and the essentialness of it, and how it unfolds even now in large and unexpected and magnificent ways, and when I speak of the necessity of the humanities, the necessity of civics education, of engaged citizenship, of civility and mutual respect, the necessity of historical literacy, the necessity of the liberal arts, it is another way of saying the simple essential truth that your story matters, and your place matters, and it has always mattered, and it is time to lay it all down on the page in the history books among the long memories.

On that magical day with my brothers, beneath the heat of the beating sun, after the flood, beyond the voice of our mother, I could not discern, and still don’t know, what exactly we were trying to free—whether it was that muddy sunken canoe or some version of ourselves loosened at last from the limitations of our time and place, loosened from our own narrow self-conceptions, loosened and free as we once were briefly here on the porch of Oceania in this wondrous verdant state of Hawai’i, where Time itself is so porous and History itself is so alive that to arrive and to depart has no linguistic separation, for in a land rich with stories there is no difference.


[i] W. S. Merwin, Merwin: Collected Poems 1952–1993 (New York: Library of America, 2013), 420.

[ii] I am consciously echoing a sentence by Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), 35.

[iii] Frederick Douglass, The Portable Frederick Douglass, John Stauffer and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds. (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), 343.