Edward L. Ayers recounted a rousing speech he gave in Wales some years ago about the humanities in the new digital age; afterward, an audience member dubbed him “Evangelical Ed.” “And it’s true,” Ayers admitted with a sly smile, “my style is very much a Baptist preacher.” The boyish-looking, curly-haired president of the University of Richmond is an indefatigable proselytizer for the “real humanities,” as he calls them—that is, “things that present a different way of looking at the world we live in.”
Ayers speaks of his own unlikely path to academia. He was born in the mountains of North Carolina and grew up in East Tennessee, the son of a used car salesman (before that, Ayers’s father worked in a textile mill and operated a printing press) and a fifth-grade teacher. “I’d always thought of myself as a mountain person, a hillbilly—a suburban hillbilly,” he said. “You go outside in East Tennessee and people are interested if you’re wearing shoes.” Once he set foot on the campus of the University of Tennessee it seemed “like heaven to me.” He quickly realized “there’s a job where they pay you to read books and talk, the only two things I know how to do.” He was hooked.
While pursuing a doctorate at Yale, Ayers was viewed as an oddity, with his Appalachian accent and southern ways. “People kept saying, ‘where are you from?’ My wife and I suddenly had an ethnicity. . . . I discovered I was a southerner.” He also discovered there was such a thing as southern history, which he absorbed under the guidance of C. Vann Woodward (Ayers took the last class he ever taught) and David Brion Davis, the great historian of slavery.
For Ayers, the humanities are all about empathy, about connecting with others, and including as many people as possible in the discussion of our nation’s past, present, and future. “There’s a radically democratic purpose behind all that I do. . . . When you see what the humanities have to offer, you want to share them as broadly as you can.” He uses every tool at hand—and he has been in the vanguard of developing new ones. In the 1990s, Ayers, then a professor at the University of Virginia, produced a groundbreaking digital history project called The Valley of the Shadow. He and his team gathered every primary document—census records, newspapers, diaries, letters, and maps—from two communities in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War, one Southern and one Northern. Ayers wanted people to “feel the texture of history” and the human experience of war. The project “has every piece of information on every person who lived in these two communities. It doesn’t decide at the outset who’s interesting or important or who’s not.”
Though genial by nature, Ayers considers himself a contrarian, nudging others to get outside of themselves and their preconceived notions. He tackles tough topics like the Civil War and its aftermath, with the goal of bringing people together “to see not necessarily the same reality, but to converge on a common ground of understanding.” He uses various platforms to reach an ever-widening audience: he’s written or edited ten books, including America’s War: Talking About the Civil War and Emancipation on Their 150th Anniversaries, copublished by the American Library Association and NEH, which has spawned over a thousand library conversations nationwide; he cohosts BackStory, a popular weekly radio show and podcast produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities that gives historical perspectives on current issues; he is the guiding force behind the digital mapping website Visualizing Emancipation being produced at the University of Richmond, which allows one to see the process of freedom unfolding; he recently gave keynote addresses at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Manassas and the firing on Fort Sumter; he’s testified before Congress and written numerous articles espousing the humanities; he even squeezes in teaching undergraduates in a class called “Touching the Past: The Purposes and Strategies of American History.”
Ayers’s energy and enthusiasm are infectious. “The humanities changed my life, and I’m just trying to make it as useful to people as possible.” But he does have one word of advice: Never tell people “what they think they know already. If it’s not changing the way they see things, it’s not really worth doing.”
— by Donna Lucey