Humanities on the move

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

In The Heart of the Matter[1], we learn of the existence of a threat to the humanities. It is not always clear exactly what that threat is, but it is cumulative and evidenced most clearly in a trend of increased funding for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education, an outgrowth of the National Academy of Sciences’ 2007 “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report which “encourage[d] new and expanded funding for scientific research” and better “education in the STEM disciplines.”

According to The Heart of the Matter, the humanities is at risk compared to our colleagues in STEM fields. The report suggests that much depends upon the outcome of our efforts to turn back this trend because the quality of our civic life and the health of the humanities are linked. I suppose there is nothing wrong or surprising about this emphasis on crisis, given its source (an esteemed academic association) and a profusion of hot-button issues that are part of our national cultural life, from the culture wars to gay marriage and gun control. But for whom does the report speak?

From my position as the President of the Georgia Humanities Council, the health of the public humanities is more robust than the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) suggests. While there are certainly challenges in this sector, it is also the case that if we adopt a more expansive view, the humanities can be seen as a vigorous, even thriving part of daily cultural existence. While the word “humanities” may induce a confused stare if we ask a nonacademic to define it, the fact is the humanities are on the move. They do a very brisk business in the public square and the marketplace. In an earlier post, Ralph Lewin used the word “hunger” to describe the public’s interest in California’s Humanities programs. I think that is apt.

Micah Roberts leads during the Sacred Harp singing at the Georgia Roots Music Festival, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia, January 18, 2014. Photograph by Sam Culpepper.

Micah Roberts leads during the Sacred Harp singing at the Georgia Roots Music Festival, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia, January 18, 2014. Photo credit:  Sam Culpepper

To look at just one example close to home, people filled the Woodruff Arts Center in downtown Atlanta in January of this year to take part in a day of roots music cosponsored by the Georgia Humanities Council and the Atlanta Symphony of the Woodruff Arts Center. It was the culminating day in a two-year, largely rural, statewide public humanities program in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution and the University of West Georgia’s Center for Public History. That afternoon, thousands participated in dialogues with roots musicians, explored musical traditions, and learned about our state’s heritage. Participants in these programs represented all walks of life and certainly more than a few had never before entered the doors of the Woodruff Arts Center – a downtown cultural venue with offerings that include theater, lectures, musical events, and art.

Carol Harsh, Museum on Main Street, gives Georgia First Lady Sandra Deal a tour of the New Harmonies exhibit.

Carol Harsh, Museum on Main Street, gives Georgia First Lady Sandra Deal a tour of the New Harmonies exhibit.  Photo credit:  Georgia Humanities Council

A catalog detailing Georgia’s musical stories, prepared by public historians, was made available at the event–as was the Smithsonian’s curated traveling exhibition, “New Harmonies.” About 6,000 people attended the day’s program and about 115,000 statewide participated in the two-year traveling exhibition and programs. The Center for Public History and GHC also maintained an actively utilized website.

Projects like this one illustrate that the public is hungry for content-rich programs. In fact, the humanities in the public sphere have never been more vital. Trends in nonfiction book sales and publishing point to the size of the audience for the humanities, as does the fact that one in four adult radio listeners tune into National Public Radio (NPR) programs, such as “This American Life” or book conversations with Bob Edwards, not to mention syndicated call-in shows and programs that feature radio hosts like Krista Tippett and Diane Rehm, both of whom received National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) 2013 presidential medals. The Teaching Company’s “great courses” lecture series for lifelong learners–both audio and video recordings of prizewinning faculty–fly off the shelves of our public libraries, and they do a brisk business on Amazon and on e-Bay. (Interestingly, the Smithsonian Institution has just entered into a ten-year licensing agreement with the company in a bid to tap into the national demand.)

And we haven’t said a word yet about the extent of humanities content and interaction on the Internet or the phenomenon of digital (and self-) publication, or the ubiquity of blogs that, if not always on humanistic content, certainly embody dialogic methodology.

People seek content that will captivate them. They are eager for urgent, entertaining, even mind-bending stories about our lives together on this planet. There is something profoundly human in our never-ending quests. Many, many people are engaged, listening, learning, hungry for information that is captivating, vital, and entertaining. These are “public humanities moments,” and they surround us 24/7.

Funding has always been a problem for our work, especially in the US. When we speak of declines in the humanities, we are often really speaking of loss of Federal support. As we look to adopt other measures of “how we’re doing,” we need to keep in mind also that federal and state investment in many of our favored cultural agencies and organizations, and a good deal of education funding at every level and in every locale, is mostly a post-World War II phenomenon. The public humanities existed before government funding, and it continues to exist alongside it.

Like the words “civic engagement,” as Mary Rizzo reminds us, we need to be wary of our own trendiness in defending what we do. In the end, people are curious, or as Briann Greenfield put it in an earlier blog posting, they “will always care about the humanities because the humanities are about being human.” What I admire most about my colleagues in public history is their eagerness to “get on with it.”

In conversations like the one begun by AAAS, what public historians can do is remind us to be cautious about the royal “we,” as those inside and outside the academy together testify to the power and the necessity of that overly confusing word, “the humanities.” There are challenges, to be sure, but there are opportunities, too, and friends of the work everywhere.

[1] American Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Heart of the Matter:  The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation (2013).

~ Jamil Zainaldin is President of the Georgia Humanities Council.

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