the state humanities councils, connecting the public to scholarship

(Elon, NC) Elizabeth Lynn has published an important paper entitled State Councils, The Humanities, and the American Public. It tells the story of the formation of the National Endowment for the Humanities as a means to fund high scholarship, the almost accidental creation of state humanities councils (composed of laypeople as well as scholars), and how those councils helped save and strengthen the NEH from the grassroots up.

I contribute a relatively long preface that tells a story of its own. In brief summary, these are the stages in my story:

The humanities were invented by the ancient Sophists and then reinvented in the Renaissance to teach rhetoric, practical reasoning, and other skills for public life.

Professional humanists uncovered truths about the texts they studied that tended to reduce their immediate relevance to current public life. For example, they first mined classical history for models of virtue and wisdom, but the more they understood the past, the more complex, distant, and even irrelevant it seemed.

Humanism as professional expertise reached is apogee in Germany, and many of the greatest German scholars migrated to the United States because of Hitler. In the immediate post-war period, those exiles coexisted pretty comfortably in elite American universities with Anglophone public intellectuals who wrote appreciative essays on high culture for relatively broad audiences. Together, they produced scholarship that was widely respected and reasonably noncontroversial.

At around the same time, the federal government attained peak levels of public trust and frequently allocated public funds and decision-making power to specialized groups–military officers, business and union leaders, and scientists–who also had the public’s trust. Thus it was natural for Congress to appropriate funds for the humanities and turn the cash over to distinguished professional humanists in elite universities.

But all that collapsed as the public lost trust in government and specialized experts of all types, and as the calm consensus within the humanities gave way to intense and abstruse controversies, often with a political edge.

Today, even if you want to use public funds to support high scholarship in the humanities, you’ve got to think about strategies that tie scholarship to laypeople’s concerns. Elizabeth Lynn depicts the state humanities councils as means to that end. By the way, we are working with her and the Indiana state council (now known as “Indiana Humanities”) on an empirical study of the public humanities in that state. I hope it will demonstrate the breadth and robustness of the network.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.