Could the public humanities become more valuable?

The Philadelphia Flower Show is the oldest and largest indoor show of its kind in the world.  The event drew 230,000 people with speakers, demonstrations, performances and food and wine tastings. Credit: Photo by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia™

The Philadelphia Flower Show is the oldest and largest indoor show of its kind in the world. This year the event drew 230,000 people with speakers, demonstrations, performances and food and wine tastings.
Credit: Photo by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia™

Building community has turned up as a priority in a wide variety of settings around the region lately, often with the humanities in the driver’s seat. Perhaps in the season when underground bulbs send up the flowers that remind us to appreciate the beauty in nature, it is reasonable to treat the humanities a bit like those flowers. Perhaps this is a chance to take a moment to give a sniff, let our spirits be lifted, and renew our hopes for our work in a troubled world.

On Sunday, March 14, I visited an old stomping ground at the Sandy Spring Museum in Maryland, to cheer on two new exhibits created by members of the community. One exhibit told a poignant story of a local veteran: growing up, service in Afghanistan, a catastrophic injury, and recovery with support from the community. The other transformed and linked existing exhibits by narrating how each incarnated a place that the community once gathered together. From the smithy to a local parlor, exhibit developers celebrated the close-knit communities of the area. Inviting local people to dig into local history has made the museum a lot of new friends and given the community powerful new ways of experiencing how “Sandy Spring is less a place than a state of mind.”

Just a week before, a visit to the 2014 Philadelphia Flower Show revealed a similarly rich community created by horticultural competition. Mrs. Dorrance Hamilton, long a benefactor of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society with a profusion of Flower Show prize ribbons of her own, put some of her personal favorite specimens on display for the first time, welcoming others into her amazing plant world. She also created the Hamilton Horti-Court, to which anyone could submit a favorite plant. The public submissions were judged by Flower Show visitors, with Mrs. Hamilton on hand at the end of week to distribute prizes. I wish I had known far enough in advance to submit my own heroic yellow-blooming succulent “hattiora” – I think it might have taken inspiration from the wonderful stuff around it! The Court, with its inviting and empowering simplicity, demonstrated the continued evolution of the Flower Show. No longer just an elite celebration of those with gardeners and greenhouses, the Flower Show belongs more and more to those who love to grub in the dirt and work to create a beautiful city.

Note also that Princeton University hosted the Young Women’s Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics on March 21. Career scientists presented their work, offered hands-on experiences to 400 middle-school aged girls, and encouraged them to think about careers in STEM fields for themselves. Remarkably often, the scientists described their career choices in terms of connecting to other human beings, making a better world, and pursuing a passion for understanding within themselves. A cellist explained links between mathematics and music. FBI agents outlined how a “Body Farm” in Tennessee helps forensic specialists determine cause and timing of violent deaths. The scientists have gathered annually for two decades, and the crowd just keeps growing. They model real women in science for interested girls, as well as demonstrating that many concerns beyond technical curiosity can motivate and sustain scientific work. One young woman at the Body Farm display identified herself as a fan of the FOX TV show Bones, whose heroine has inspired her to pursue a career in forensic anthropology.

Television offers another powerful endorsement of the humanities in another crime procedural. ABC’s Castle partners a New York mystery novelist (Nathan Fillion) with a homicide detective (Stana Katic) and her squad. The case closure rate goes way up after the writer joins the team, because author Castle approaches each case as a human story. At crucial moments, his authorial sense of how “the story should be written” steers the investigators in the right direction, averts catastrophe, and/or highlights the crucial details. Over several seasons, Castle’s credibility with the hard-boiled members of the NYPD grows, and they develop more confidence in the role of plausible human narratives in solving murders. It’s a startling weekly tribute to the role of narrative in human life, not to mention a hit for ABC.

By the end of the fourth season, Castle claimed 12 million viewers, 2.6 million of them in the very desirable demographic between 18-49. This month, Castle had 3,947,950 Facebook likes and over 130,000 people talking about it. That compares very favorably with with 603 likes for the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, 4157 likes for Maryland Humanities’ new women’s history month page, and only 1,025 likes for New York — Castle’s own home.

Of course, one would never actually compare a state humanities council with the impact of a heavily-marketed romantic procedural, well-placed in the Monday night schedule, but the challenging facts should make humanities professionals think hard. At a STEM conference, a horticultural extravaganza, and in the reviled world of network television, the humanities are showing their power and winning more fans for narrative, community, and deep understanding of human lives than we are. We are not held back by a lack of public interest in the humanities perhaps so much as we hold ourselves back in ways that cost us public interest in our work.

All these examples that draw people toward the humanities do so by deploying the humanities in the service of necessary human tasks – understanding a community, choosing a career, competing for fun, and solving crimes (or entertaining an audience!). I wonder whether the approach taken by professional humanists doesn’t over-privilege what might be called the “pure humanities,” or history, literature, religion etc. for its own sake, forgetting that our audiences face every day with concrete needs that drive their actions and interest. Humanities programming that meets practical human needs might help bring the humanities closer to human life, and find loyal fans everywhere for professional humanities practice.

Dr. Holt is a public historian, scholar, teacher, and executive. She is a lecturer in history and public history at Pennsylvania State University, Abington. As a public historian, Dr. Holt seeks to build community connection and civic vitality around understanding and presenting American history. Over more than a decade in the public humanities, Holt has brought about new initiatives, improved the strategic focus and financial management of non profits, built brands, managed teams of staff and volunteers, and contributed to statewide, regional, and national discussions on the future and purpose of the humanities. She lectures in the United States and Europe, and publishes in journals of public history, museum studies, and American history.

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