Finding the roots of civic engagement in the public humanities

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Editor’s Note: This is the third piece in a series on the “crisis” in the humanities. A post introducing the series can be found here.

This wordle shows the most common words in state humanities council mission statements. Image credit: Mary Rizzo.

This wordle shows the most common words in state humanities council mission statements. Image credit: Mary Rizzo.

When the American Academy of Arts and Sciences makes the case for federal support for the public humanities in its Heart of the Matter report, it relies on arguments about the potential for civic engagement. AAAS contends, for example, that the humanities encourage “civic vigor” and prepare citizens to be “voters, jurors, and consumers.” A recent report by the Kettering Foundation agreed, calling civic engagement the focus of the state humanities councils.

But this hasn’t always been the case. When the state councils were created, they were mandated to utilize the humanities to understand and shape public policy. As we know, historians did something similar in creating the field of public history. Spurred by the academic job crisis, PhD historians worked for federal and state government agencies, created lobbying organizations for history, and partnered with humanities councils. By examining the shift from public policy to civic engagement in the public humanities, we can begin to write a genealogy of civic engagement, which has become, over the last two decades, a catchphrase repeated in endless grant applications and mission statements. What do we mean by it? A Google search on “definition of civic engagement” turns up more than 29,000 results. Skim those and it quickly becomes apparent that when you’ve read one definition of civic engagement, you’ve read one definition of civic engagement.

It’s worth asking, does it really matter? Isn’t it good enough that the AAAS is advocating for “civil public discourse” in a culture where Internet trolls harass women who speak publicly about, well, anything, and target marketing of cable TV and radio means that people mainly listen to ideas they already agree with? To be sure, a functioning democracy requires citizens to articulate opinions and debate questions about the social good, but the emphasis on such an amorphously defined catchphrase as the major purpose of the public humanities should make us pause, especially when we consider that the ascension of civic engagement is a relatively recent phenomenon. As public historians, we should ask ourselves not just where civic engagement came from but what it displaced.

The Public Policy Experiment

Illumination by Jean Fouquet for the work of Boccaccio, The case of the noble men and women representing a bed of justice at the Parliament of Paris, held by Charles VII of France, 1450. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Illumination by Jean Fouquet for the work of Boccaccio, The case of the noble men and women representing a bed of justice at the Parliament of Paris, held by Charles VII of France, 1450. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

After Congress created the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1965, Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI) worried that the NEH was too elitist and academic. Flexing his political muscle, he forced the creation of state humanities councils as grassroots versions of the NEH in the early 1970s. To make sure that the councils (called committees at this time) were relevant, they focused their grantmaking on supporting programs devoted to public understanding and analysis of policy. Humanist scholars were envisioned as adding valuable context to public policy debates, helping citizens understand issues more deeply. In practice, this meant that state councils supported programs, such as a 1977 symposium on “The Free Flow of Information: Government, Media and the Individual,” which brought 300 people, including journalists and scholars, together in Texas. Similarly, in New Jersey, the council coordinated a series of talks on “The Juvenile Justice System: Who is Responsible?” As Geoffrey Marshall, Assistant Director of the state-based program for the NEH said in a talk, “if the issue seems to have several possible answers, if it is an issue on which your grandfather was voting, then there is probably something a humanist can contribute to the discussion.”

By the 1976 reauthorization of the NEH, the public policy requirement had been lifted, though NEH grantees and councils continued to pursue these issues. In 1979, the NEH granted funds to the US Conference of Mayors to develop a humanities program for mayors and to University of California Santa Barbara’s Otis Graham, former editor of The Public Historian, for a project on “Public Policy and the American Political Economy.”

But a shift was underway. By the 1980s, according to scholar Elizabeth Lynn, the dominant topic for councils was multiculturalism, while the 2000s decade was the era of civic engagement, as exemplified by the proliferation of community conversation programs in which groups of strangers gathered to discuss texts that gestured to contemporary issues. In New Jersey, where I served as associate director for the state humanities council, our series of community conversations focused on environmental justice. Importantly, though, there was no direct connection to policy—in fact, we carefully tiptoed around it. The facilitators worked to ensure a flow of ideas from the participants, rather than putting forward their own interpretations.

This shift raises several questions. Why did councils move from public policy to civic engagement? What does this tell us about the changing nature of citizenship in the US? Are public policy and civic engagement really different names for essentially similar activities or are these terms fundamentally interested in different questions and methods? What is the role of humanities scholars and the public in these efforts? How would the public humanities define civic engagement as theory and practice?

In considering the question why did councils move from public policy to civic engagement, I’d like to suggest a few possible explanations:

  • Humanities councils tired of only focusing on policy. For some, there was a desire to de-instrumentalize the humanities in order to think about big questions with no direct application. This debate continues today as academic humanists and historians argue about the relevance of their work. But it’s also tied to longstanding political conflicts over populism versus elitism and the role of the public intellectual in American life.
  • The culture wars of the 1990s forced a retrenchment in the public humanities away from obviously political topics for fear of retribution in the form of funding cuts. Civic engagement, perhaps, was the result: a vague term with positive connotations with little political content.
  • Humanities 2.0 offers an alternative.  In a user-generated world, people aren’t interested in being lectured to by scholars. Instead, they want to be part of the conversation. Civic engagement allows for a more democratic structure than the earlier public policy model (in ways that public historians surely understand).

More research into the history of the public humanities movement is sorely needed—though there are wonderful forays in this direction by colleagues like Jamil Zainaldin and Elizabeth Lynn. The larger questions of where civic engagement came from, how it has shaped the public sphere, and its effects are important ones with ramifications for our work. How would you define civic engagement? What are examples of good civic engagement projects?

~ Mary Rizzo is Co-Editor of The Public Historian and Public Historian in Residence at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities at Rutgers University-Camden. She blogs at and tweets @rizzo_pubhist.

  1. Toni Messina says:

    You raise some excellent questions. Civic engagement certainly is on our minds at a local government level. Our working definition of engagement appears to be: “the process of raising individual or group awareness, stimulating discussion or reaction and creating a sense that a voice has been heard.” What I have found over the years is that more people get engaged through frustration; some engage through witnessing good or inspirational deeds; and most don’t consciously engage until something unusual comes up.

  2. Mary, you ask excellent questions. What do we really mean by civic engagement, and why have councils moved in this direction? I hope others will take up this question and add to our understanding of the turn toward civic engagement and its implications for the future of the humanities not only in public but also in academic life.

    I think all the reasons you put forward had something to do with the councils’ shift from public policy to civic engagement. The first two reasons you name (weariness with the weird instrumentality of the public policy experiment, and aversion to conflict during the culture wars) surely helped to move councils away from public policy programming; while the third reason you name (public desire for a more participatory and less scholar-centered exchange) helped move councils toward community conversations and other forms of citizen-centered programming.

    In another essay, “Four Traditions of Philanthropy,” Susan Wisely and I have identified a similar trend in American philanthropy starting in the 1990s–well before the digital revolution took hold–so I don’t think that the turn toward civic engagement is all that internet-induced. It has more to do with populism and a persistent American pattern of rejecting expertise in favor of citizen participation. In our essay on philanthropy, BTW, we defined civic engagement as follows:

    “We hear calls for different voices in public life—not just the voice of the successful, not just the voice of the expert, but the voice of the citizen. …. In response, foundations and other philanthropic organizations have begun to turn toward a fourth philanthropic way, which some people refer to as civic engagement. They are investing resources in strengthening relationships and nurturing conversations among citizens, in order to build, as the President of the Public Education Network, Wendy Puriefoy, put it, ‘more reflective and resourceful local communities.’ Study circles, neighborhood associations, and the forums sponsored by the Kettering Foundation are examples of this fourth philanthropic response, as is the more ambitious recent initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation to ‘partner’ with communities in cultivating local resources for addressing poverty. Ultimately, the goal of these investments may be to relieve, improve, or reform the communities they serve. Yet the focus of the work, and the standard of its success, is building up connections among ordinary citizens.”

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