Editor's Note

Editor’s Note

May and June were busy months for NEH staff, who worked overtime to process CARES grants to support 56 state and jurisdictional humanities councils and humanities organizations across the country. A virtual session of the National Council on the Humanities was convened, and Chairman Jon Parrish Peede announced a new round of urgently needed grants shortly before this issue went to press.

As we contemplate mortality reports and unemployment figures during this difficult time, many of us are turning to the humanities with a fresh hunger for understanding.

Take the basic question of how to live. We tend to answer by choosing: friends, a spouse, a town—it’s one menu item after another. But what if your range of choices is, without warning, suddenly curtailed? Can you still choose your way to health and happiness?

Positive psychology has inspired many people to tailor their habits to exert counter pressure against depression, marital woes, and professional dissatisfaction. Peter Gibbon reviews the career and cultural significance of Martin Seligman and his brainchild, positive psychology, wondering if their influence can survive the crisis year of 2020.

While physically distant from friends and family, we have developed an even greater dependence on digital technology to, among other things, help educate our children. And many of us are using our bonus dividend of free time to read and educate ourselves, not least about the kind of society we are.

NEH Chairman Jon Parrish Peede takes up both issues with Maryanne Wolf, cognitive neuroscientist and reading expert, and Louise Dubé, executive director of iCivics, an NEH-supported nonprofit that promotes civics through educational games. Their conversation ranges from the evolution of the reading brain to improving knowledge of American history and government.

Leading several articles on the topic of health, E. Thomas Ewing of Virginia Tech explores the role history played in the influenza pandemic of 1918, probing how information about previous pandemics steered public policy in wrong directions before being used to set things aright.

The humanities teach us so much, but not always directly. Another piece in this issue, about the artist and author Sara Hendren, describes how her life changed when her son was born with Down syndrome, an event that caused her to see the built environment with new eyes and gave new life to her work.

A story without an ending would be ultimately shapeless, so, before you are done with this issue, consider reading the essay by NEH Public Scholar Nicholas A. Basbanes, author of a new biography of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, on how Americans thought about death in an age of consumption and war. A beautiful piece full of moving reflections, it seems eerily relevant to today.