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The Humanities in Relationship

Jon Parrish Peede

Jon Parrish Peede, Acting Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Boston, MA
United States

November 4, 2017

“The Humanities in Relationship”


Jon Parrish Peede

Acting Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

2017 National Humanities Conference

Boston, MA

November 4, 2017

When I was growing up in the Deep South, when we met a stranger, we’d ask, “Where are you from? Who are your people?” as a way of getting to know one another.

We didn’t ask: “What’s your job?” Which, in Washington, is a good thing—because job titles tend to change quickly.

Now, I’m not going to give a lecture this morning, or illuminate a scholarly matter, or reveal any embargoed information. I’m going to talk with you.

I’m going tell you where I’m from—and how that ties into my views on the humanities and how we might work together.


I grew up in a small town in Mississippi, graduating from high school in a class of thirty or so students. There I first encountered the verse of Walt Whitman and learned I was “large,” that “I contain multitudes.” My football coach had sized me up, and he was a skeptic about this revelation. On Sundays, the preacher contradicted the poet, saying that our bodies were “the temple of the Holy Ghost”—this caused a good bit of guilt, depending on what you had been up to on Saturday night. Here’s the thing: dead gay poet, living straight preacher, they both educated me, expanded my thinking, made me a better person. I never saw a reason then—nor do I now—to reject either voice or the life journey that gave rise to that voice.

When you’re from a rural state or a poor city or an underserved community, neighborhood, or group, you get used to false assumptions when you leave it for other lands. The best way I know to overcome stereotypes and sheer lack of access is to bring people into proximity with one another.

So, this year at NEH we’ve increased the travel budgets for our grantmaking divisions by 15 percent, with a special pool for reaching underserved communities across the nation. If we get more panelists from underserved communities on our grantmaking panels, it will demystify the application process and review process for them. They’ll take that knowledge back to their communities, and they will apply for funding and will encourage others to do so. And over time this organic process will lead to NEH funding in new communities.

We all know that inclusion matters. But you have to make it manifest in a real way. You have to align your philosophy and your practices together, and you have to communicate down the line to your entire team that “this is the way it is.”


You want to know about my humanities background, and I could tell you that I graduated from Vanderbilt in English and from the Southern Studies graduate program at the University of Mississippi under Bill Ferris.

I was raised in a family in the sciences, was a mediocre chemistry major until my final year in college—but the Classics and English would never let go of me. I found my path in the humanities in my senior year, and Bill Ferris took a chance on me, offering me a graduate fellowship. Bill has been an incredible mentor to me, something I’ll return to.

I could tell that you I began my career as a university press editor in the fields of literature and history, then started a book publishing company, became communications director for a liberal arts college before accepting a presidential appointment as Counselor to the NEA Chairman Dana Gioia.

I could tell you that the Obama administration extended my appointment by two years; that I ran a magazine for the University of Virginia with wonderful colleagues, editing seven Pulitzer Prize winners, before my current appointment to NEH; that I’ve spent the last 25 years as a writer, editor, grants administrator.

Or: I can tell you that I read Whitman as a boy, saw Eudora Welty at the grocery store thumping a melon to gauge if it was ripe, sang weekly at school while the now-forgotten Miss Cole led us on an old upright piano.

Honestly, the career milestones don’t matter; it is the path that matters.

As humanists, we must—we must—we must—see our duty as not only preserving culture, or underwriting research, or presenting exhibitions and films, but as the nearly sacred duty of pointing the way for the next generation so that they too can live meaningful, impactful, fulfilling lives.

And in my experience, such lives are most often rooted in knowledge and curiosity.

Again, the path matters.

And mentors—I think of my own, the great classicist Susan Ford Wiltshire, the folklorist Bill Ferris, the poet Dana Gioia. Wise mentors matter.

And wise colleagues do, too. 

At the Humanities Endowment, I am deeply honored to serve with such intellectually gifted, steadfastly dedicated colleagues—appointees and civil servants alike.

If your organization is not providing mentorship opportunities, especially for those from underserved communities, then you are falling short of your promise and responsibilities. I believe this rather strongly.

In addition to mentors, we have to seek out partners.

Take, for example, the state encyclopedias. The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities has a dedicated staff for the online Encyclopedia Virginia in partnership with the Library of Virginia. In Mississippi, the humanities council used a different model, serving as a funder and partner for the weighty new Mississippi Encyclopedia. They recognized that drawing upon a flagship university humanities department was the best approach for that particular decade-long, labor-intensive book project.

Whatever model works best (and there are so many successful models), NEH encourages our state humanities partners and higher education partners to work together to advance these types of projects.

I encourage our state humanities councils to draw upon graduate students to write for these projects—indeed, I began my own scholarly career in this manner. On the first encyclopedia that I wrote for, they paid you about $200, and then it cost about $150 to buy the actual book. But it got your name in print. If you’re in grad school today, writing for a general audience is important.

If you’re chair of a history department, a political science department, and your state has an encyclopedia, reach out to your state humanities council and see if this might be a way—or if there are other ways—that you might deepen your relationship.

This very much ties into the funding that started under Chairman Adams with the NEH Next Gen PhD program. As the program white papers and final reports have made crystal clear, doctoral programs need to encourage their graduate students to write as well for a general audience as they do for a smaller scholarly one. The state encyclopedias may be one path of many that we might consider.

On the subject of partners and civic engagement: The state councils serve as a national model for building nonpartisan coalitions. Field experts and generous donors are united in serving their states and regions.

You know that it is important to have humanists on your boards. But I cannot overstate that donors have access to rooms and discussions that you likely will not; your organizations do great work, but you have to make sure that the decision-makers know this—and learn it firsthand from sources who are well known to them.

On the topic of meeting with policy makers, I’ll never forget the first time that I staffed NEA Chairman Gioia on a Capitol Hill visit. As we stepped out of the car, he said to me, “Jon, there are only two types of people in that building. Our friends and our future friends. You have to believe that to work for me.”

Again, the importance of mentors.

Over the 15 years that have followed, I’ve spent a lot of time with future friends of the arts and humanities. Frankly, it’s a relief to be here.

But, friends, we have a lot of work to do. It’s not that we need to get our house in order. Rather, we need to open our doors wider. And we need to call our neighbors and invite them to a common table.

I’m proud to report that the state councils that I’ve met with are doing exactly this, whether a veterans discussion group in Chattanooga or a World War I Chautauqua in rural Nebraska.

If you see better ways that NEH can help to strengthen your mentorship efforts, board appointments, or core educational projects, let us know.


Though I loved my years as an editor, as a talkative southerner I was always meant for the public side of the humanities.

If you want to have an impactful career in the public humanities, then you must lean into the public aspect of it.

I would argue that you must be “in relationship” with your audience.

What we are in relationship with is what we value.

I am in relationship with everyone and everything that I love in the world: my wife, my daughter, our nation; God, books, trees, nature; libraries, museums, music; the arts, schools, learning.

The same, I expect, can be said for you: You are in relationship with what you love.

The difficulty, of course, is how to bring others into the same state of mind.

The difficulty is to not dismiss those who do not “get it.”

The difficulty is to resist the “us/them” dichotomy.

We must not, as humanities leaders, allow our organizations or our field to be viewed as a thing apart.

We cannot be seen as living in ivory towers behind iron gates. We must not define our role as mere gatekeepers, even as we insist on the importance of learning, the importance of knowledge, and, in all things, the importance of intellectual rigor.

We have to unite our communities while simultaneously breaking down barriers of race, of gender, of class. We don’t discuss that last category—class—often enough.

When a high-quality public education is so unevenly available across the nation, when a basic college education is unaffordable to the middle class, when stable jobs and comprehensive health care are out of reach for millions, then it is only natural—though regrettable—that we find ourselves in the midst of a dispute about the haves/have-nots, in which those of us who make our lives in the humanities are seen as the “haves,” as the elites.

We must find a way to overcome this inaccurate, this limiting label. We must, as I’ve said, be in relationship.

We must make every effort to have an impact beyond the academy and into our larger communities, among our fellow Americans. Notice that I did not say “among real Americans.” For humanists are real Americans.

We have to make the case for the significance of the humanities and of our organizations at the level of the PTA and the school board, the city council and the mayor’s office, the university board and the corporate board room, the state house and onward.

One of the reasons that I value NEH’s relationships with our state humanities partners so highly is because your staffs and boards have developed such a strong web of connections with your fellow citizens in communities of all sizes and political perspectives and cultural backgrounds.

Over the past few months, I’ve met with some ten state directors during trips to their states or at the Endowment offices. My goal is to meet with a director every two or three weeks.

My first meeting outside of the agency was in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, at ArtsQuest, which is a great example of creative placemaking that brings urban planning and cultural tourism together. Laurie Zierer and her team set a high bar for excellence.

After Hurricane Harvey, I met with Michael Gillette and the Humanities Texas staff and other statewide cultural leaders in Austin to seek their perspective on the most efficient and effective way to respond the devastating impact of the hurricane and flooding.

I came away from my Humanities Texas meetings with admiration for their innovative online and in-person educational programming.

In addition, I can announce that NEH is going to reestablish the Challenge Grant category that allowed them to restore their historical building. We will have more details about these infrastructure grants in January 2018.

And I had the chance to meet with Miranda Restovic and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities team in D.C. and to consult by phone about natural disasters. We’ll see them in New Orleans next month.

Another part of the agency chairmanship is celebrating significant programs with our state partners. I was honored to join Chris Sommerich and the Humanities Nebraska staff for the annual Governor’s humanities lecture. I was particularly impressed with the broad corporate and statehouse support for their mission.

I traveled to Nashville for the opening of a remarkable World War I exhibition at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. We appreciate the efforts of Tim Henderson and Humanities Tennessee to arrange our visit and congressional meeting.

Yesterday I was in Providence with Elizabeth Francis from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities for a wonderful visit. It was great to see the arts and humanities leaders together. The congressional delegation and the governor sent representatives, and Mayor Jorge Elorza spoke about the importance of creativity. There was no wall between the arts and the humanities—and that’s something I’ve seen across the states. That’s something I want to affirm.

In a few weeks I will be with Stuart Rockoff and Mississippi Humanities in Jackson for the opening of the state’s twin museums—one focused on the state history and the other on civil rights.

The list goes on, but I will stop there.


It’s only natural that state leaders and the local media ask about the state of the NEH budget on these trips. And I tell them what I’ve told you throughout this week: We are not in the midst of the culture wars. I’ve experienced that, and this is different.

No one in the Trump administration has ever stated in my presence that the arts and humanities are not important. But, as you know, the president’s budget calls for the end of NEH funding.

The House of Representatives has expressed its support by proposing an appropriation of $145 million; the Senate’s budget recommendation should be public soon. We are communicating with Congress and the administration weekly; everyone is united around one core charge: be good stewards of the tax dollars.

Most importantly on the budget: We are open for business. We want applications. We are reviewing applications. And we want you to encourage others to apply.


I am a realist. I am aware that we live in divisive times. The sense of alienation and separation may feel greater now than it has in our lifetime.

But the historian in me begs to differ.

Consider, for example, NEH’s founding legislation, which states that the United States’ “world leadership . . . must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit.”[i]

I’ll say that again: “A leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit.”

Sounds great, right?

But as the NEH-funded Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War reminds us, this was in the mid 1960s—during a period of three assassinations, the Birmingham church bombing, three young civil rights workers murdered and buried in a Mississippi levee, the riots in Watts and Detroit and Washington D.C., the violent opposition to the March on Selma, with the Orangeburg shootings, the Kent State shootings, the Jackson State shootings to come within years.[ii]

In 1965, when our legislation passed, our government was well on the way to evaluating the effectiveness of the war effort based on body count. And our returning troops were treated hellishly upon their return. And those scars still remain.

As National Humanities Medalist Annette Gordon-Reed wrote in the aftermath of white supremacist marches and protests in Charlottesville: “American ideals have always clashed with harsh American realities.” In her short essay, she discussed the profound achievements and heartbreaking failings of Thomas Jefferson. Whatever your field is, whatever your touchstone of understanding is, to make any sense of such human complexity, you must turn to the humanities. We all must.

It is through the humanities that we rediscover generation after generation “the better angels of our nature,” to quote Lincoln’s inaugural address. Indeed, it is through the humanities that we preserve such words—and, on our best days, embody them.


Speaking of better angels: Last month, Richard Wilbur passed away in his nineties. He was a fine person and remarkable poet. His poem “The Writer”[iii] tells about a father listening from the stairwell to his young daughter at the typewriter, trying to get the words down right. Wilbur writes:

            Young as she is, the stuff

            Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:

  I wish her a lucky passage.

The narrator is caught between the pride he feels for her determination and the unsettling knowledge of the writer’s life. Suddenly, a memory flashes in his mind of a starling trapped in the same room two years before, trying to re-find the open window. His daughter, the young writer, is akin to that “iridescent creature” that finally finds the opening—“clearing,” in Wilbur’s words, “the sill of the world.”

He closes the poem thus:

            It is always a matter, my darling,

            Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish

            What I wished you before, but harder.

If you want to know what my values are, if you want to know what my colleagues’ values are: They are of this same cloth. We believe in the importance of public service and the essentialness of the humanities—the essentialness of dedicating oneself to a life of meaning and value.


In my own thinking, I owe a debt to Marcus Aurelius. In the second book of Meditations, he posits:

The things of the body are as unstable as water; the things of the soul, dreams and vapors; life itself a warfare or a sojourning in a strange land. What then shall be our guide and escort? One thing, and one only—Philosophy.

And true Philosophy is to observe the celestial part within us, to keep it inviolate and unscathed, above the power of pain and pleasure, doing nothing at hazard, nothing with falsehood, and nothing with hypocrisy.[iv]

I could read and reread Aurelius’ Meditations for days, absorbing its Stoic wisdom and its call to public service.

In these charged times in our classrooms and public spaces and media, we in the humanities need to hold up as a model the core tenets of our disciplines, including the commitment to:

  • unfettered access to knowledge
  • the primacy of critical reasoning
  • apolitical research and scholarship
  • mutual respect in our interactions
  • and robust dialogs where we do not set up strawmen as substitutes for those of goodwill who see the world in sharply different terms than we do

In short, we must hold fast to our best traditions, including the tradition of inclusion.

Across the nation, humanities departments are under significant budget pressure. We can only prevail in the long run, I believe, if we are able to make clear, cogent cases for our societal value, our public value.

For those who require an economic argument, we can prove convincingly that every federal dollar invested in the humanities produces a return of five dollars. A 500-percent return-on-investment gets one’s attention. We can talk about how corporate leaders, such as Union Pacific leaders in Omaha that I recently met with, want employees who are well grounded in critical reasoning skills.

We can underscore that our federal dollars are catalytic, meant to stimulate nascent financial resources as much as to trigger intellectual growth.

But, in this room and in this moment, we can allow ourselves an aesthetic interlude and borrow from a beloved poet and say that we support the humanities because it allows us to clear “the sill of the world.”


Before I turn to your questions, I want to express on behalf of my colleagues how important your support has been this year.

You and I and our colleagues came into these leadership positions because someone viewed us as experts, which is flattering. But we are most effective when we embody the hunger of the eager student—the pilgrim “sojourning in a strange land,” to use Aurelius’ phrase.

I am—and always will remain—a student. And a passionate one.

In my current role, I do not have the restriction of being dispassionate—which is good. Because I do not merely believe in the abstract value of the humanities.

Rather, like my NEH colleagues, I burn for the humanities—in my country, in my community, in my home.

To use Richard Wilbur’s framing again: Ever since I joined the great endeavor of this agency, I wish what I wished before—but harder.

Thank you.


[i] National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 (Public Law 89-209) September 29, 1965.

[ii] Annette Gordon-Reed, “Charlottesville: Why Jefferson Matters," The New York Review of Books 64 (2017).

[iii] Richard Wilbur, New and Collected Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1988) 53-54.

[iv] Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, trans. John Jackson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1906) 67-68.

This text is available for unedited republication, free of charge, using the following credit: “Originally published on November 15, 2017, as ‘The Humanities in Relationship’ by Jon Parrish Peede on, the website of the National Endowment for the Humanities.” Please email us if you are republishing it or have any questions.