Public Humanities Across the U.S.

Last month the federal/state partnership staff of the National Endowment for the Humanities posted a piece titled “56 Ways to do the Public Humanities.” The post chronicles recent projects carried out by the fifty-six 501(c)(3) nonprofit state and jurisdictional humanities councils. These 56 councils are situated in the fifty states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa. Since MARCH offers us a forum to learn about the public humanities in a regional context, I thought it might be interesting to use the NEH post to highlight some of the humanities happenings outside of the mid-Atlantic. The three I’ve chosen to discuss are the Clemente courses, the Chautauqua Living History Festivals, and the Indiana Food for Thought Project.

The diversity of the projects outlined on the NEH website is a powerful answer to the question of why we do the humanities- a debate that rages on, especially as we think about economic growth and recovery from the most recent financial crisis. As proponents of the humanities, it seems we are always somehow defending our passion. It is to our advantage to constantly refine our reasons for supporting humanities programming; in becoming more self-aware, I think we also become better at our jobs. As a great example of this, a high school history teacher I know had his class listen to excerpts from On Point: The Great Humanities Debate with Tom Ashbrook. The students were then asked to participate in a debate based on what they had heard. The On Point episode opens with bleak statistics about the state of the humanities. We hear first from Edward Conard, who wrote an op-ed essay for the Washington Post this July titled “We Don’t Need More Humanities Majors.” Mark Edmundson author of the Washington Post essay “Why major in humanities? Not just for a good job — for a good life” and Max Nisen, author of the Business Insider piece “11 Reasons to Ignore the Haters and Major in the Humanities” weigh in on the side of the humanities.

Even if the value of the humanities remains a matter of public debate, one can hardly deny the importance of the projects documented on the NEH website. The commentators on the On Point episode are most concerned with the fate of college humanities majors. Jean Cheney, Associate Director of the Utah Humanities Council wrote a piece related to the question of humanities and jobs. Cheney’s subject is Clemente courses, which offer free college-level humanities courses to low income students. Students can often receive college credit for these courses. Cheney discusses the model of altruism and self-reflection learned in Clemente courses. Humanities courses modeled on the Clemente concept are currently offered in the District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin. According to their website, more than ten thousand students worldwide have attended a Clemente course, and over fifty percent have successfully completed it. Cheney describes the positive effect Clemente courses have had on individuals who have used them as stepping stones to higher education and life-improvement.

Chautauqua Living History Festivals provide a more leisurely form of public education in many states across the US. State humanities Councils in Colorado, Maryland, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and Ohio, sponsored “big tent” Chautauqua Living History Festivals in 2012 (a similar report is not yet posted for 2013). The early twentieth-century tradition of Chautauqua brings theater to the countryside and disseminates literature and performing arts to populations living outside of traditional cultural centers.

Chautauqua is a way to disseminate arts, culture, and knowledge across the country. On the other hand, we have regionally specific projects, like the Indiana Humanities Council project entitled “Food for Thought” presented by Indiana’s Family of Farmers. Of course MARCH readers have developed, participated in, and read about myriad regionally-based humanities projects, but I think seeing the example of the Indiana Food for Thought project from the outside highlights the creativity involved in engaging specific populations.

The Indiana Humanities Council partnered with more than forty institutions, from the Indiana Historical Society to the Indiana Department of Agriculture. The project brought together farmers, poetry coalitions, school corporations, arts organizations and museums and was funded by universities, endowments and foundations. The cooperation and broad interest in this project shows how humanities organizations can help us better understand our environment. The project looked at locals’ relationship to food, and at the same time examined global issues of hunger, nutrition, food production and obesity. The project used food as a jumping off point to promote tolerance. Food can teach us about farming practices, geography, and distribution. Consumption habits can tell us about rituals and quotidian habits. The Legacy Book that came out of the project combines stories and photographs to tell the story of food in Indiana and exemplified the kinds of artistic and literary production that can come out of public humanities projects. In other words, this project was valuable because it brought people together, people in Indiana understand more about themselves and their place in the world, and provided a forum for artistic and personal expression. You can read the report written by Keira Amstutz, president and CEO of the Indiana Humanities Council, by clicking here.

There are so many ways to carry out the public humanities and the NEH website provides inspiration for all of us involved in this field. For information on more projects being carried out within the US and US territories, check out the featured projects tab on the Federal/state partnership part of the NEH website.