Spring 2009, Vol. 17, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

The State of the Humanities

by Bruce Cole, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities

Left: Bruce Cole, NEH Chairman, at a luncheon
for public humanities leaders in Nashville.

Chairman Cole spoke at Vanderbilt University on September 5, 2008, as part of the Chancellor’s Lecture Series. His talk was also the final in a series of events marking the twentieth anniversary of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities. We are grateful to Chairman Cole for allowing us to reprint his remarks in Letters.

Good ?evening. Thank you, Chancellor Zeppos, for your kind introduction. I am delighted to be in Nashville at this outstanding university. I am very pleased to join the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities in celebrating its twentieth anniversary—and I am proud of the role the National Endowment for the Humanities played in helping to launch the Center two decades ago.

In 1989, the NEH awarded the Center a $480,000 Challenge Grant to help establish a permanent endowment for the program. As the current NEH Chairman, I am thrilled to come here and see the results of that initial investment: a thriving center for humanities learning and research at one of our nation’s finest universities. I admire the Center’s variety of excellent programs—and I very much appreciate your emphasis on promoting interdisciplinary learning and research among Vanderbilt’s students and faculty.
On this happy anniversary for the Robert Penn Warren Center, we celebrate the past— yet we must also look forward. In the years to come, the humanities will face exciting opportunities—and some serious challenges.

I am no seer or prophet, but as NEH Chairman I do see trends in our grant applications, and my job gives me a good overarching perspective on what is happening in the humanities. I want to offer my take on the state of the humanities today, focusing on three major areas.

One development that is having a tremendous impact on the humanities is the rise of the digital age. When I arrived at the Endowment in 2001, I had no idea that terms like “petabytes” and “interoperability” would become part of my everyday vocabulary. But it soon became clear to me that digital technology will revolutionize the humanities in three key ways.

First, digitization will foster increased collaboration in the humanities disciplines. Until recently, the hard sciences and social sciences have been far ahead of the humanities in this regard. Those disciplines embrace collaborative work—yet the humanities disciplines tend to prize individual scholarship. Our ideal is still the lone scholar poring through archives, or hunching over a desk, writing feverishly.

This model has certainly produced much brilliant scholarship. Many humanities scholars will continue to work this way and the NEH will continue to support them. Yet a significant part of the humanities’ future lies in the type of collaborative scholarship that digital technology makes possible.

An imperfect but valuable example of this is the “wiki” tool, which demonstrates the remarkable results possible when we tap into the shared knowledge of enthusiastic communities. Wikis are also showing us the future of reference works. In the digital age, reference works can be “dynamic.” They can be constantly updated; created and edited in collaboration with users from around the globe; and remarkably adept at policing themselves to maintain accuracy, balance, and quality.

The second key change is that “data-driven” scholarship will allow humanists to ask new questions and create new knowledge. The “core dataset” for humanities scholars consists of objects like books, documents, journals, paintings, newspapers, film and audio recordings, sculpture—these are the things we humanists study. In the past, these objects were read and searched on a small scale; no one scholar could research or study more than a subset of the works in his field. 

But in the digital age, the scale of available materials has exploded. In just the past few years, massive amounts of cultural heritage materials have been digitized. Scholars now have access to millions of digitized books, journals, and recordings. In the
sciences, the data-driven approach to knowledge made possible by supercomputing has produced incredible breakthroughs like the Human Genome Project. Now humanities scholars are exploring how this approach can benefit their disciplines.
The third key change is that digitizing allows us to greatly increase public access
to humanities resources. Digital archiving and search tools are making primary
documents, scholarship, and other humanities resources much more portable and more
broadly available.

These changes, while exciting, also raise serious questions. How will the digital age transform the ways in which we read, write, think, and learn? Exactly what kinds of new knowledge might humanities scholars acquire?  What new questions might all this data compel them to ask?  What content tools do we need to develop to help scholars turn this tidal wave of information into wisdom? And how can humanists take advantage of digital technology without changing what is fundamentally meaningful and unique about the humanities?

At the NEH we are taking a leadership role in exploring these questions, and in promoting the application of digital technology to humanities scholarship, teaching, and access. In 2006 we launched our Digital Humanities Initiative, and this past April, we transformed it into a permanent Office of Digital Humanities, or ODH. This Office works with other NEH staff and scholars, and with other funding bodies both in the United States and abroad, to pursue the great opportunities offered by the digital humanities.

Let me give you a few examples of the types of projects we are pursuing through the Office of Digital Humanities: One of our goals is to start a conversation about how supercomputers can be used for humanities research. This past spring, we announced our new Humanities High Performance Computing initiative—HHPC for short. ODH is working with our colleagues at the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation to show humanities scholars how high–performance computing and data storage might be used for their work. We also recently announced a new grant competition with the Department of Energy to award time and training on their supercomputers.

Another ODH program is our Digital Humanities Start-up Grants. These grants are encouraging scholars with bright new ideas, and providing the “seed money” to help promising digital humanities projects get off the ground.

Another program is our Digital Humanities Workshops, which help K-12 educators learn how to use digital resources to strengthen the teaching of the humanities in our schools. And our Digital Humanities Challenge Grants are helping endow digital humanities centers and other large-scale projects.

Now, let me reassure you: while the NEH is embracing a digital future for the humanities, this does not mean that we will end our support for print projects and other traditional forms of scholarship—far from it.

But it does mean that we recognize and welcome the far-reaching potential of this new frontier in the humanities. As a federal agency, the Endowment’s mission is to bring the humanities to every American—so we seek to harness the power of digital technology to preserve humanities resources and scholarship, and make the humanities more accessible
to everyone.

This brings me to another important challenge we face: the need to democratize the humanities. The NEH’s founding legislation declares that “democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens.” The Endowment fosters this wisdom and vision by bringing the insights of the humanities to as many citizens as possible.

We are pursuing this goal in several ways. Through our We the People program, now almost six years old, the NEH supports projects that promote the teaching, study, and understanding of American history and culture. These include documentary films, museum and library exhibitions and other public programs, and workshops for teachers at American historic sites such as Ellis Island, Mount Vernon, and Pearl Harbor. Since its inception, We the People has received $66 million in funding from Congress and the President, and has used that funding to support over 1,500 projects in every state of
the Union.

One We the People project that takes advantage of digital technology is our National Digital Newspaper Program. With our partners at the Library of Congress, we are working to make available online, fully searchable, digital files of historic newspapers from every American state and territory—the first great draft of our history.
Last year we unveiled the first results of our labors—the Chronicling America page on the Library of Congress’s Web site. This site now contains over 600,000 pages of public domain newspapers. Students, teachers, scholars, and history buffs can now, at the click of a mouse, get immediate and searchable access to this incredible resource. Ultimately, Chronicling America will make more than 30 million pages of historic American newspapers available to the public for free, and forever.

In February, the NEH launched the newest element of We the People, an initiative called Picturing America. This initiative brings high-quality reproductions of great American art to classrooms and public libraries nationwide, where they can help citizens of all ages connect to the people, places, and ideas that have shaped our country. Picturing America uses art in a unique way to engage students in the humanities—including history, literature, social studies, civics, and much more.

The response to Picturing America has been amazing. During a short, three-month application window this past spring, nearly one-fifth of all the schools and public libraries in the United States applied for Picturing America awards. Later this month, over 26,000 schools and libraries will receive Picturing America sets, including 504 recipients in Tennessee and 32 here in Nashville.

Picturing America might not seem immediately relevant to the concerns of most humanities scholars. But I hope you see how effectively this initiative will promote public engagement with the humanities, and raise awareness of the NEH and its activities among our citizens. Picturing America is extending the Endowment’s reach exponentially—and I think you will agree that is a good thing.

Through We the People, Picturing America, and many other programs, the NEH ensures that the humanities continue to make a vital contribution to our civic life. But the Endowment cannot do it all alone. Those of you who teach and research in the humanities must also make the argument for the importance of your disciplines.
That brings me to the final challenge that I want to discuss: the need to restore the humanities to a central place in higher education and in public discourse.

At their best, the humanities help us carry on the rich traditions of our civilization, and help us seek answers to the enduring questions that we ask as human beings: What is the good life? What is justice? Is there a human nature, and if so, what is it? What is good government? Is there such a thing as right and wrong, good and evil?
Most serious students begin college excited about the possibility of exploring such questions. Yet too often these days, humanities teachers and departments avoid them—either because there is simply no room for them in the curriculum; or because humanities teachers have greater interest in more specialized topics or problems; or because they do not believe it is even possible to answer these questions.

Indeed, the humanities today suffer from a crisis of confidence—an uncertainty about what role they should play on our campuses, or in the intellectual life of our nation as a whole. Humanities scholars and teachers know their disciplines are important—but they often have trouble making the case to their colleagues or to the larger public.
There are several reasons for this. First, on many campuses today, a rising tide of vocationalism threatens to drown any area of study that does not promise maximum return on the dollar. Second, too many humanists have succumbed to the temptation of self-marginalization in their fields by channeling their work into narrow specialties defined by technical, jargon-filled writing. When taken to an extreme, this temptation denies public access to scholarly discourse.

Third, we now have celebrity humanities professors claiming that, unlike the natural and social sciences, the humanities have no real positive effect on the world beyond the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them. To this way of thinking, the humanities have no broader public role to play; instead, the most they can offer us is an insular, self-satisfied feeling, similar to the pleasure we might get from playing sports, or solving a puzzle. In this view, the humanities are at best a sort of highfalutin version of sudoku.
As scholars and teachers, we have an obligation not merely to claim, but to demonstrate, that the humanities are not merely a playground for nihilism, or barnacles clinging for survival on the supposedly more “practical” areas of study at our universities. Nor are the humanities mere luxuries, or amusements for idle moments. They are ever-renewing gifts that enlighten and enrich the lives of every citizen.

At the Endowment, we are working to address valid concerns about the state of the humanities on our campuses. For example: the NEH continues its efforts to improve undergraduate education. There is an old saying I am fond of: “Teaching is to research like sin is to confession—without one, you do not have the other.” I love that line, because I happen to believe it is true. So I am very excited about a new grant
category the NEH is now offering, called Teaching Development Fellowships. These fellowships will support college and university teachers pursuing research aimed specifically at deepening their core knowledge in the humanities, in order to improve their undergraduate teaching.

We are also working on another new grant program, one that I think will excite all those who believe that undergraduate humanities courses should help students and scholars tackle the enduring questions I mentioned a moment ago. The NEH will soon announce the guidelines for this grant program, so stay tuned.

As scholars and teachers, you also have a vital part to play in restoring the humanities to their rightful place on campus and in our intellectual life. So let me once again encourage the scholars in this audience to use simple, clear language, and to think about how you can address the broader public, and not just your colleagues in a particular sub-field. I am not advocating the “dumbing down” of professional articles and books. Rather, I am encouraging humanities scholars to make a sincere effort to make complex ideas understandable to the intelligent and curious lay reader.

By making academic thought more accessible to the public, we ensure that the wisdom of the humanities spreads wider and sinks deeper into the fabric of American thought. Not every scholar should address a broader public, but more of us can do so, and we should welcome that opportunity.

Humanities teachers and scholars should not be content with just talking to each other. Let us show our students and our fellow citizens that the humanities have something
vital to add to our national life, to our quest for truth, and to the great conversation of our civilization.

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