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Taking the Humanities to the People

A Conversation with James F. Veninga

HUMANITIES, May/June 2000 | Volume 21, Number 3

As the state humanities councils marked their anniversaries NEH Chairman William R. Ferris talked about culture in the public arena with James F. Veninga, who directed the Texas Council for the Humanities for twenty-three years. The author of Humanities and the Civic Imagination, Veninga has left Texas to become campus dean of the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County/Wausau.

William R. Ferris: Let me start by reflecting on the range of your humanities leadership. You have been head of the Texas Council for the Humanities, then president of the Institute for the Humanities at Salado, and now dean of the University of Wisconsin in Wausau. How does practicing the humanities inside academe differ from practicing it outside?

James F. Veninga: I'm about to find out. I've been here one month, and I'm learning a lot in my new position.

I'm hoping that what I can bring to this institution as a result of my experience in the public arena is a way of framing some questions that will help determine the direction that this institution will go, especially in regard to the nature of undergraduate education, and the role of the scholar on campus and off campus.

The basic difference in how the humanities are practiced probably has to do with the influence of the disciplines in how a postsecondary institution is defined. Traditional disciplines--history and philosophy and physics and so forth--have a powerful effect on self-definition. It is much more pronounced on campus than it is out in the public arena--that is my experience, anyway. In the public arena, traditional boundaries are often transcended. There is less concern for academic divisions.

Ferris: You were at the Texas Council for twenty-three years, almost from the very beginning. What did you see as the council's mission then and how do you see it now?

Veninga: I think the mission has stayed fairly consistent over the years. But living out that mission, how best to achieve that mission, has varied. That is where the excitement of state humanities council work really comes into play.

There are two related activities within the broader mission. One has to do with extending the benefit of the humanities to more and more people. It involves the dissemination of the humanities, trying to infuse the humanities into cities, towns, and villages across the state. The other part of that mission has to do with public dialog on important issues. It has to do with trying to ensure the preservation of democratic life and the qualities that go into democratic life. Those two activities are related, but they are also very different, and they involve different kinds of work on the part of scholars who are active in the public arena. Some scholars are better than others in the first activity, and some do much better in the second activity.

The first is really an extension of teaching: taking what happens in the classroom and doing something similar in the community, imparting knowledge. The other is very fresh in the sense that it involves listening to the community and playing a very different role--a role that takes the questions and the concerns of the community and then explores how resources in the humanities might address them. But these two activities within the broader mission of supporting the humanities and American life have been consistent, I think, over the quarter century that the Texas Council has been in existence.

Ferris: One of the programs I recall you put in place a few years ago was to place volumes of the Library of America into small public libraries in Texas, which was an ambitious and visionary project. We are taking the lead from your book and trying to do that nationwide with support from the Carnegie Corporation. I am sure that there are a lot of programs like that project in Texas that left a permanent impression on the community. What would you say was one of the best programs to come from the Texas Council?

Veninga: Well, the one you just cited is an interesting example. We tried to encourage reading and discussion programs in the libraries that received those books, and it was really the first step in our effort to encourage those kinds of public programs in small libraries that we could then support.

Another project with an enduring legacy occurred in October of 1982. It was sponsored by the Institute for the Humanities at Salado, where I just spent the last two and a half years. It was a program called "Understanding Vietnam." An incredible silence fell on this country after the Vietnam War. This conference was one of the first efforts to break that silence. It involved an incredible mix of scholars and writers and policy people. It included the Vietnam historian George Herring; it included LBJ's adviser, Walt Rostow, who by then had taken a position at the University of Texas at Austin. It involved a number of leading journalists; it involved the poet Robert Bly; it involved military officials, including General Douglas Kinnard, who held a strategic position in Vietnam. But the audience was composed of two hundred ordinary Texans from Dallas, San Antonio, Waco, and Houston. The audience also included Vietnam vets, who were very vocal and struggling with their experience. It was one of those projects that came at just the right time and had an extensive impact within our state. It had impact beyond Texas, too, with extensive coverage by newspapers like the Boston Globe and the Washington Post.

Ferris: Looking at Texas and its geography and people, what did you find were the issues that were most compelling for Texans?

Veninga: Probably the most compelling issue during the past quarter of a century had to do with cultural pluralism, with how the state was grappling with the realities of that pluralism, turning our rich ethnic and cultural pluralism into a social, economic, and democratic strength. We were fortunate to have on our board very articulate people who provided leadership in furthering research, scholarship, public programs and curriculum materials that would allow the state to see its pluralistic heritage and makeup as very positive realities. As I think back on our work, one of the things that I feel most positive about is the role that the council played in creating a much more rich and full history of the state and of the region than before. We funded hundreds of projects focusing on Mexican American history and culture, or black history and culture, or women's history and culture. Out of that, some important work was done, inside as well as outside the academy. We certainly furthered those studies on college and university campuses, but we also had an impact on the public school curriculum.

Ferris: Do you think that public humanities have changed the way Texans look at themselves?

Veninga: It is difficult to come up with a definitive answer to that question. One reason why I published a collection of essays for my book was to document what this journey has been about.

After twenty-five years, there have probably been two thousand projects, with close to $12 million in funds released, and what has been the impact of this work? I do believe that our sense of ourselves--and here I'm talking as a Texan--has changed as a result of that work. This work has helped to promote a broader and deeper understanding of ourselves--our history, our values, our challenges.

The work of NEH in public programs does the same thing. I'm thinking of a recent documentary film on the U.S.-Mexican War that both NEH and the Texas Council for the Humanities helped to support. That war never received a great deal of treatment in American history textbooks, at either the secondary level or postsecondary level, and I think the documentary and the curriculum materials that came out of that project have had, and will continue to have, an important impact.

Ferris: When you are developing a project that covers a wider area, how do you find common ground with other state humanities councils?

Veninga: From the beginning of the program in the early 1970s, there has been interest in collaboration and finding arenas where councils could do joint projects. Let me give two examples.

One of the very early ones was an effort involving councils in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California in a major survey of Hispanic resources. Once we identified scholars, materials, and opportunities, we developed programs that reached new audiences. That was a three- or four-year collaborative effort, and the councils received special funding from NEH to do this project.

More recently, there has been a collaborative effort between the Texas Council and the Louisiana Council in developing library programs in east Texas and Louisiana. The Texas Council has benefited from the leadership of the Louisiana Council in developing a really innovative grassroots library reading and discussion program.

Ferris: You mentioned your latest book, which is a collection of essays called Humanities and the Civic Imagination. What do you mean by the civic imagination, and how is it cultivated?

Veninga: Let me back up a little bit and refer to a project that we were involved in in 1983. We launched the annual Texas Lecture and Symposium on the Humanities, which had a good run for ten years or so. The first speaker in that series was Professor Charles Black, who was teaching then at Yale Law School.

Ferris: Yes, I knew him. He played a mean harmonica.

Veninga: That's right, and he was an incredibly gifted poet, too.

Ferris: He was a sweet man.

Veninga: Oh, incredibly so. I enjoyed being with him and I had some association with him afterwards. He's a Texan. He came back to the state and he gave this wonderful lecture on "The Humane Imagination." He articulated how the humanities allow us to see how we as human beings are connected, one to the other, and, hence, the power of literature, poetry, biography, music, and so forth in transcending boundaries and overcoming divisions.

That concept, of course, is very powerful, but it led me to begin thinking about the civic imagination, which takes the imagination one step further. The civic imagination has to do with those connections that help bring us together in our democratic way of life--that is, the connections that foster public life in this country and that allow us as citizens to go about the task of doing the public's business. It is the civic imagination that in earlier times gave birth to some of the most progressive developments in the history of the country--the hospital movement, the public library movement, the development of museums, the development of civic organizations. So the civic imagination, the way I'm using this term, refers to that capacity that allows us to see the importance of our public life and what needs to be done to enhance our democratic traditions.

Ferris: I think of the public humanities as taking informed scholarship out of the academy and into public forums. Is that what you feel is the meaning of public humanities?

Veninga: It is part of it, but it is not the complete picture. I think that it is a two-way street. The public humanities movement does involve taking those ideas, a body of knowledge, and going out into the community. But I also think this effort involves finding out from the community what its interests are, what its needs are, and then working with the community to respond to those needs and interests. The creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities was, on the one hand, an invitation to scholars to teach and do their research with the presence of their fellow citizens in mind; on the other hand, it was an invitation to the public to claim ownership of the humanities, to see the humanities as important resources in their own lives and in their community. It is a two-way street. We need to take the questions of the public--the public's interests and needs--and bring these questions back to the campus and see how to respond.

Ferris: How does the intellectual life of a community make a difference in public policy on areas like education, the judicial system, medical ethics, city planning?

Veninga: I am reminded of the saying that there's your truth and there's my truth, and then there's the truth that we come to share through our discussions and deliberations. Achieving consensus on important issues requires having public space where people can exchange views and be able to arrive at a common understanding about whether a new hospital is needed or whether a new public school is needed or whether it is time to change the curriculum of our local school. We need that kind of public dialog if democracy is to work.

Ferris: How do we allow the public to shape humanities scholarship as opposed to having scholarship simply imposed on the public?

Veninga: It is by invitation, and we must be skillful and supportive in how we as academics relate to the public. Surveys can be done and there can be public meetings to identify needs and interests, and then we need to be able to see what kinds of resources institutions of higher education can offer to address those needs.

I was reading an earlier issue of Humanities, the January-February 2000 issue, and you have a wonderful piece in there about Bob Young and the Wyoming Council for the Humanities. That article provides a perfect example of this process. What is the council doing with NEH's model humanities project grant? The members of the council are really listening to the community. They are developing demographic profiles of Wyoming towns, which they will use to develop a social and cultural map. They will be looking at the resources in the community and will help explore with the community what topics they want covered, what issues need addressing. It seems to me that the Wyoming Council has found a mechanism to determine what the community needs and wants, and what resources--including what texts and reading guides--can be used to develop programs that will respond to these needs and interests.

Ferris: How do you respond to critics like the late Alan Bloom, who argued that scholarship should take place untouched by public social concerns and interests?

Veninga: I think his argument misses the point. The humanities do originate out in the community. That is where they begin. They begin with the same questions that ultimately any scholar in the humanities will be asking. These questions have to do with truth; they have to do with the nature of justice; they have to do with the meaning of life. They have to do with whether or not this nation will be around for a long period of time, they have to do with children and family life, with relationships and love, and pursuits and free will. Charles Frankel once commented: "The public really does want to know whether or not human beings have free will." He's right. Those questions are very human questions, and those questions arose long before there were institutions of higher education. The academic disciplines flow from these public and personal questions. Bloom simply got it wrong. He missed the point that the humanities really do originate in our individual and public lives.

Ferris: You argue convincingly that scholars should get out of the ivory tower and mingle on Main Street, and that the general public should cross over into the academy as well. What would you say to a scholar who wanted to do something in a public forum but didn't know where to start or how to be effective?

Veninga: That often happens. One thing that I would say is that there are many roles that scholars can play. I fully support the scholar whose work is primarily confined to teaching and research. We need scholars who give 95 percent of their time to teaching and research, but we certainly do need many more scholars who take on public roles.

One of the things that we discovered in Texas--and this is also true, I know, in California, based on a survey--is that there is a tendency for senior scholars to participate in public programs more so than younger scholars. I suppose that reflects the obvious--that younger scholars on tenure-track positions focus on teaching and research. But it is interesting to know that once one has attained tenure, there seems to be a hunger on the part of many scholars to explore new and different opportunities and to take on public roles.

Within the public arena, there are different kinds of roles that can be played. Not all folks may want to participate in a public conference. Instead, they may want to develop, let's say, an oral history project with a local library, a project involving fewer people. A state council needs to be skilled in finding ways of using the talents of particular scholars and finding the most appropriate roles for them.

Ferris: In one of your essays, you mention how Robert Hutchins admired the Athenian model, a society where citizens are engaged in lifelong learning. You argue that that model doesn't work anymore because our society is more complicated--it has too many voices compared with ancient Athens, and there is less leisure time, not more. With our adult population pulled in so many directions, how do you make the case that taking time for the humanities is relevant?

Veninga: That is a great question. I think there is another dimension, too, which has to do with new technologies and with the Internet: the extent to which learning in the humanities on the part of the public may be increasingly more of a private than public affair. I guess I fall back on the original legislation establishing NEH, which talks about American democracy. Interestingly enough, the documents that led up to the establishment of the NEH did deal with the question of leisure and how we would fill all those hours that Americans would have once their workweek dropped from forty to thirty-five hours. Of course, that has not happened, and we Americans are extremely pressed. In answering this question, we must remember our own personal quests and then ask how we should nourish our pursuit of meaning and of fulfillment. If we shortchange ourselves in terms of reflection and of the amount of time we give to what we call the humanities, then our lives are impoverished.

I think the same thing can be said about the public arena and about American culture in general. The more that we support the humanities in all their settings, including very public settings, the more vitality society will have and the better chance that we will have to ensure that the underpinnings of democracy are preserved.

Ferris: Jim, you were a professor of religion before you committed your time to public humanities. What led you to leave the academy?

Veninga: Reflecting on my own experience in graduate education, I had to deal with the question of whether I wanted an academic career or a career outside the academy. What I found through the state humanities council was that, for me, an absolutely golden opportunity existed to continue with my academic interests while at the same time being able to respond to my public interests.

Ferris: Now that you have returned to the academy as campus dean at the University of Wisconsin in Wausau, do you feel as though you've come the full circle?

Veninga: I have. It is going to be interesting to sort this out over a period of time and to find out what my experience outside the academy will mean now that I'm back inside the university. It will be interesting to see what I might bring to our discussions here, whether it has to do with the curriculum or appointments or, indeed, exploring the relationship between this institution and the Wausau community.

Ferris: I want to mention a couple of our initiatives and get your thoughts on them, going from the specific to the more general. We have our "My History Is America's History" project.

Veninga: That is absolutely wonderful. One of the things it does is build a bridge between individual learning and broader currents of American history.

One of the critiques I have had of some of our work at the local level dealing with pluralism, whether it involves the Vietnamese community on the coast of Texas or the Mexican American community in El Paso, is that while a lot of the work might take a local or a regional or a state approach, it is always difficult to take the particular and to make sure what is local is ultimately related to the more general. For example, El Paso history must be seen in the context of the history of the Southwest, and then, beyond that, the history of the United States and of this hemisphere. NEH's new project has great potential for helping people remember those connections and serving as a model for other projects. You're raising fundamental questions ultimately about immigration, about the history of the United States, about the American identity.

Ferris: As we enter this brave new world of technology, we are, here and at councils all over the nation, increasingly building digital resources. We have three major websites, our own plus one for the "My History Is America's History" and another for EDSITEment for K-12. What are your thoughts on technology and the future of the humanities?

Veninga: I am impressed with what is going on both in terms of the nature of the effort and the tremendous resources being developed. I am impressed with the use of new technologies in the education arena. Right here in Wausau, we are very involved with distance education and Internet learning. The potential for using these technologies on behalf of the humanities is very strong.

What I would like to see is a continuing effort to help Americans think about this technology and where it is taking us. One of the arenas--there are a number--but one of the arenas that state humanities councils might want to promote in the coming years has to do with programs that reflect on this technology and the extent to which technology might be driving learning and the culture itself. What are the pluses and the minuses of that? I'm excited, to be honest with you, about the many ways that these technologies can enrich the classroom. In Texas, we had our own modest effort of taking, through the Texas Humanities Resource Center, fifty-five photographic exhibits and digitizing them and then developing programs for teachers, giving them the opportunity to see how they could use this material in their own classrooms. So at the K-12 level, it is not just a question of making the material available on the Internet, but of really working with teachers to see how all that material can be used to enhance the curriculum.

Ferris: That's true. Jim, I am grateful for the time you have taken with us today. I just want to tell you again how much we admire your career in the humanities and how grateful we are for what you've done to broaden every American's understanding of these resources.

Veninga: Thank you so much. It has been a great honor to be a part of this national effort.