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Editor's Note, September/October 2005

Celebrating Our 40th

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, September/October 2005 | Volume 26, Number 5

On a sunny September morning forty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill creating the National Endowment for the Humanities and its sister agency, the Arts. The guest list was glittery: actor Gregory Peck, photographer Ansel Adams, the writer Ralph Ellison, the architect Walter Gropius, the poet Marianne Moore, philanthropist Paul Mellon. The vice president gave a reception, and the Harkness Ballet performed that night in the East Room of the White House.

In an editorial, the Washington Post and Times Herald was gratified by the new legislation: "In the last generation science, with justified government support and encouragement, became dominant in our national personality. Eminent spokesmen of the academic community, humanists and scientists alike, now have come forward to ask the Federal Government help right the balance." It added: "The Foundation is intended to freshen the cultural atmosphere of this country with an infusion of money and the prestige of formal recognition. . . . "

As part of the anniversary, we look back at some landmark Endowment projects--the King Tut exhibition, the film The Civil War--and note quieter moments--the seeding of money to help create the Library of America, grants to scholars whose research resulted in Pulitzer Prize-winning books, grants to teachers to give them time of their own to return to the classroom as students.

As much as it is a time for remembering, an anniversary is also an occasion to look to the future. Over the next forty years, technology will play a larger and larger role in the humanities. Three scholars speculate on where the world of computers is taking us. Gregory Crane describes a future in which books not only talk to each other but also anticipate the questions likely to be asked-in effect, predicting the way a reader thinks. Martha Nell Smith finds that having millions of eyes evaluating primary materials is adding a new rigor to academic life. Janet H. Murray takes one of the cultural icons of our time, the film Casablanca, and dissects it via computer.

With any massive change, there are doubts. The Chronicle of Higher Education quotes a 2004 survey of 2,316 professors--an online survey--that found a mixed reaction to the benefits of the Internet. When asked if it had changed the quality of student work, 42 percent of the professors said they had seen a decline; only 22 percent had seen improvement. Forty-four percent believed plagiarism had increased; 23 percent disagreed--but either way, 74 percent of them were using high-tech tools to detect it.

As the survey indicates, an ambivalence pervades these early probes into cyberspace. When Google announced a few months back that it would digitally scan millions of pages of books from five major libraries and put them online, it brought a spasm of questioning. What about copyrights? What about the context in which the information originally appeared? Are we dumbing down knowledge?

The answers, of course, lie somewhere in the future. Two millennia ago, the world's largest library was in Alexandria and contained 700,000 papyri; today it is the Library of Congress with 122 million books and documents. We have come an astonishing distance from the sound of the first human voice telling a story to another human.