American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 11

National Task Force
on Scholarship and
the Public Humanities


by James Quay and James Veninga

Rapporteur’s Summary of the Wingspread Conference
by Michael M. Sokal

Recommendations of the Task Force

© 1990 James Quay and James Veninga

Making Connections:
The Humanities, Culture and Community

by James Quay and James Veninga

While humanists normally ask their audiences to consider the past as prologue, we ask our audience to consider the present as prologue. We ask you to imagine the conditions of American life in the twenty-first century and to describe a role for the humanities that addresses those conditions. In doing so, we ask you to see beyond the debates of the present hour, beyond the American Council of Learned Societies and the Federation of State Humanities Councils, beyond the Helms amendment and the size of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ budget. From such a vantage point, we do not see an impending crisis in the humanities; rather, we can confidently assert that so long as there is a human future, the humanities will be a part of it, for both the subject and audience of the humanities must endure as long as humans endure. What is less clear is the connection between those of us who are professional humanists and the rest of American society.

Twenty years ago, Robert Hutchins proposed one possible connection in a book entitled The Learning Society. By that term, Hutchins meant a society whose primary goal was the intellectual development of its citizens. Such a society, he thought, would offer opportunities for education to every man and woman at every stage of their adult life. For Hutchins, Athens was the model: “In Athens, education was not a segregated activity, conducted for certain hours, in certain places, at a certain time of life. It was the aim of society. The city educated the man. The Athenian was educated by the culture, by paideia.”

Were he writing today, Hutchins might not be so eager to embrace Athens as a model for the Learning Society. Feminist scholarship, for example, has taught us to consider more carefully the condition of Athenian women before we champion Athenian society as a model. Writing in 1968, Hutchins believed that machines would do for every American what slaves had done for the Athenians and argued that growing affluence, a dissolving class structure, and an increase in leisure time would combine to make life-long education every citizen’s birthright. Twenty years later, we must consider all three of Hutchins’ assumptions questionable: Americans in 1987 reported they had eight hours less leisure time each week than a decade before; children of the lower and middle classes face the prospect of living standards below those of their parents; and the existence of a permanent underclass points to a hardening rather than dissolving of class structure in this country.

The erosion of Hutchins’ major assumptions is a caution to anyone projecting a future, but it does not invalidate his argument for a Learning Society. As a scholar and as an administrator, Hutchins knew well enough how much the rate of change had accelerated in this century. He argued that while investment in education is usually justified by promises of increased personal and national prosperity, an educational system’s products cannot be known for twenty-five years, and neither national nor personal needs can be reliably predicted that far in advance. Therefore, Hutchins concluded, the Learning Society cannot simply offer a vocational training; it must offer an education, and the most practical education for people of all ages is the most theoretical one, an education informed by the wisdom of the past, an education informed by the humanities.

Some Twenty-First Century Trends

Regardless of whether or not conditions in the twenty-first century favor the creation of a Learning Society in this country, we argue that future conditions will require that ours be a Learning Society. To begin, let us suggest a few of the influences that promise to affect American culture into the next century.

1. Migrations of people across national borders

Unless a change in U.S. government policy severely restricts immigration, this country — and other modern industrial nations — will continue to attract immigrants. Recent immigration has included large numbers of Southeast Asians and Central Americans, but the demographic composition of immigration to this country will likely change as we move past the year 2000. Regardless of the immigrants’ countries of origin, Americans will need to know more about people from cultures quite unlike their own. For political as well as for moral reasons, xenophobia and racial tension are not acceptable alternatives. Public school curricula and textbooks will have to change, and the leaders and workers in those institutions called upon to help the new immigrants settle in this country will have to be educated.

2. Continued population growth

The increase in population brings with it an increase in pressure on natural resources and land, igniting conflicts between the mandates of economic growth and the desire for environmental protection. Ethical questions regarding access to resources are bound to grow as pressure on those resources intensifies. In addition, the increasing population will shape political and social institutions. The formats and forums of public discourse in a large democracy continue to be shaped by the need of the country’s aspiring leaders to reach large audiences. The dialogue and debates occasionally found in town meetings may be viable options for small New England towns, but increasingly the monologue of television ads and direct mail campaigns defines the modern American election. At least since the nineteenth century, Americans have lived in an age of mass politics. Their democratic continuation demands both powerful media and citizen capacity to criticize them.

3. Continued development and deployment of information technologies

The amount, storage, delivery, and retrieval of information will continue to grow. Philosopher Hubert Dreyfus has shown how the design of the latest artificial intelligence machines influences theories of human knowing and being. As computers become more widely available and more sophisticated, their languages and the conceptions upon which those languages are based will spread from the hacker subculture into popular culture. The sheer volume of information will continue to require that specialists master particular areas and that generalists discern large patterns. But Americans will need new ways to see forests instead of trees, to turn information into knowledge, knowledge into wisdom. Computer technology and telecommunications may noursih networks while communities wither. Americans may find it easier to communicate with a like-minded colleague in a distant city than talk with a contrary neighbor.

4. Media and communications

The power of the media to shape culture is undisputed. Video cassette recorders have changed American viewing habits in the last ten years, and cable television has uncoupled Americans from broadcast networks. Media outlets multiply, but their ownership is concentrated into fewer hands. Some of us lament the superficial content of much broadcast programming, but also the fact that such programming is often the only common culture that many Americans can discuss.

Literacies Old and New

Looking at these four trends, we can discern the need for at least three literacies in the twenty-first century — literacies informed by the humanities.

The first is a need for multicultural literacy — the need for Americans to understand more about inhabitants of and immigrants to this country and the many cultures from which they come. In a provocative essay, “How to Be A North American,” Alasdair MacIntyre writes that every society enacts its own history as a more or less coherent dramatic narrative, inviting its citizens to participate in national life by considering themselves both as characters in that story and as authors of it. Members of a nation of immigrants must come to terms with two interdependent dramatic narratives: that of the American people and that of the particular ethnic group to which they belong. As MacIntyre says:

If we do not recover and identify with the particularities of our own community — North American Indian, Spanish Catholic, New England Protestant, European Jew, Irish, Black African, Japanese, and a host of others — then we shall lose what it is that we have to contribute to the common culture. We shall have nothing to bring, nothing to give. But if each of us dwells too much, or even exclusively, upon his or her own ethnic particularity, then we are in danger of fragmenting or even destroying the common life.

MacIntyre is mindful of the complexity of this task and recommends that Americans learn not only the stories of other peoples but also the same stories from rival perspectives; for example, the story of the Little Big Horn from the perspective of the U.S. Army and the Lakota. One of the tasks of a scholar is to recover, analyze, and transmit these stories, including stories found in books that have never been called great and those never found in books at all — stories of women, slaves, and working-class people. If this task is limited to the confines of a single required college course, like Stanford University’s Western Cultures course, for example, the breadth of MacIntyre’s sophisticated task is reduced to a simplistic choice — either we preserve the common culture through a curriculum of great books or we expand the common culture through texts reflecting multicultural diversity.

MacIntyre knows that multicultural literacy is not accomplished in required courses but achieved over a lifetime. He recommends a program of adult reading that will require scholars to ask not only what books Americans should read at age twenty, but at age thirty, fifty and seventy. Hutchins did not foresee the need for multicultural literacy, but in the twenty-first century, it is part of the mandate for a Learning Society.

A second literacy is civic literacy — the need of Americans to know about their government, its history, and the political principles on which it is based. The need for this literacy is as old as American democracy itself. Since it was Thomas Jefferson who wrote so compellingly of the need for an educated citizenry if American democracy were to flourish, it is fitting that a student of Jefferson should restate Jefferson’s argument today. In a 1987 report entitled The Humanities and the American Promise, Merrill Peterson wrote that the most important public mission of the humanities is improvement of the quality of civic discourse.

Peterson argues that in a democracy, with government deriving its authority from the will of the people, a primary index of civic vitality is the vigor and quality of public discussion and debate. Effective participation in this discussion is made possible not only by guarantees of political liberty, but also by the education of citizens in ways that strengthen and encourage their responsible involvement. All the trends mentioned above have the potential to impair the participation of Americans in the democratic process. Young native-born Americans and immigrants from nations with quite different traditions need the civic education of which Peterson speaks. We have already mentioned ways in which a large population tends to turn civic discourse from dialogue to monologue. Wed to the broadcast media, the modern electoral process creates a new form of demagoguery — thirty-second sound bites and one-minute television spots. United with the new information technology, electronic democracy turns to focus groups and instant polling. Americans in the twenty-first century will need heavy doses of two scholarly virtues — the faculty of critical reasoning and the time to reflect and discuss — if democratic culture is to prosper.

The third literacy is more difficult to label — we are going to call it community literacy — and here too we offer a suggestive text, Robert Bellah’s recent lecture, “The Humanities and the Survival of Community.” For Bellah, communities are defined by common moral understandings and the necessity to reach workable compromises when agreement about those understandings fails, and he finds the humanities, as the disciplines most intimately concerned with cultural heritage, indispensable to thinking and discussion of common moral understanding.

Bellah and others see community as endangered in America. Let us illustrate the danger with a California example. In 1988, the Council sponsored a conference on “Cultures in Transition: Immigration in the Central Valley” in Fresno a city of 300,000 in the largely agricultural San Joaquin Valley. A panel discussion of immigration included representatives from the Central Valley’s latest immigrants: Cambodians, Vienamese, and Lao. Their stories were filled with the grief of leaving one’s native land, the difficult adjustments to an alien culture, and the sometimes hostile reception from their new American neighbors, not to mention the generational tensions created by the fact that children adapt so much faster to the new culture than their parents do.

A fourth panel member, a rabbi, seemed out of place at first but his topic was not — the difficulty of keeping his community together. For Jews in America, he said, community was threatened not by oppression but by freedom. Borrowing a phrase of Walter Lippmann’s the Jewish community was being eroded by what he called “the acids of modernity.” It was soon clear that those same acids were eroding all communities. Both broadcast television and contemporary mobility threaten the connections to place that bind communities together. Those connections can sometimes be constricting, and we know that the broadcast television’s window to the world can be liberating and the opportunity to leave one’s home can be exhilarating. But these days, we increasingly have the sense that our communal life is out of balance: we need less acid and more base. The threat of the acids of modernity may be the one thing that all ethnic communities share.

Public Service Scholarship

So far we have spent all our time talking about trends and literacies and nothing about scholarship and the public humanities, but we hope the connection is not difficult to see. All too often, the terms “scholarship” and “public humanities” stand in opposition, with scholarship considered the equivalent of “private” or “academic” humanities. We think it more useful and more accurate to consider scholarship and the public humanities not as two distinct spheres but as parts of a single process, the process of taking private insight, testing it, and turning it into public knowledge.

The humanities scholar is granted time for reflection and research, often supported by public funds. She uses this time to journey to and extend the borders of what is known, but even closeted in her office, with only a keyboard for company, she does not travel alone, for she takes with her methods and insights given to her by teachers and colleagues she respects. As many acknowledgements in scholarly books demonstrate, scholars read their manuscripts to spouses, friends, colleagues and editors. They read them at professional gatherings and formal lectures. They reshape them based on the response they receive and then they publish them. Publication is the goal.

From one point of view, this part of the process is working very well. An unprecedented number of scholars are doing research and publishing articles in an ever-increasing number of journals. The quantity of scholarly books published grows yearly. One of the reasons for this abundance is that it is driven by a reward system that demands published articles and books as proof of intellectual vitality and as justification for professional advancement. The process has its critics. In Humanities in America, Lynne Cheney observes that scholarly specialization has narrowed and deepened as the number of scholars has increased, and that “as specialization becomes ever narrower, the humanities tend to lose their significance and centrality.” In The Last Intellectuals, Russell Jacoby believes that the increase in the number of academically-oriented scholars has meant a loss in the number of publicly-oriented intellectuals, and Wayne Booth, in an essay titled “The Scholar in Society,” confesses that “in every field but my own, I find myself ready to ask a simple and nasty question: ‘Just how many scholars of that kind does a society need?’”

Privately, many scholars, including the authors of Speaking for the Humanities, concede and lament the preciousness and obscurity of some scholarship, but they write that “the recommendation in Humanities in America that ‘to counter the excess of specialization . . . those who fund, publish, and evaluate research should encourage work of general significance’ ignores the fact that general significance only develops from specialized and particularized research.” Fair enough. But how is this development to occur? The present system is geared to reward those who generate specialized and particularized research, but who rewards those who carry the knowledge the next step toward the public? Our contention is that the process of turning private insight to public knowledge breaks down at this point.

Wayne Booth notes that America has a history of chautauquas and lyceums and college lecture series and literacy journalism, what he called haute vulgarisation. “The tradition is not dead,” he wrote in 1981, “but I have the impression that it is pursued these days more vigorously among scientists than among humanists. Where is the Lewis Thomas of literary critics? Where is the Scientific American among our journals of literary study?”

The institutions dedicated to preserving this tradition are state humanities councils, historical societies, museums, and libraries, what Lynne Cheney calls “the parallel school.” These institutions are funded by government agencies, private donors, and user fees. They’re doing better in some areas than others, but they’re in place. We don’t need a new set of institutions to complete the circuit. These institutions frequently bring scholarly knowledge to the public. The most direct way is to bring the scholar herself before a public audience. State humanities councils have been doing this for nearly twenty years now and have many successes to their credit, but there is something ad hoc about this process.

We need a more systematic way of locating public questions and problems and a more systematic way of surveying the scholarly literature. We need more people in the middle to provide connections. We need more scholars willing and able to relate their disciplines to timely public issues and concerns. We need more scholars able to survey scholarly literature and to interpret the discoveries in a public vein. We are not saying that we need to stop funding the kinds of scholarship being pursued today. What we are saying is that we need an additional kind of scholarship — public service scholarship — that is influenced by and for the benefit of the wider public.

This new scholarship is socially valuable and needs to be respected and rewarded as such. Each of the three scholars cited — MacIntyre, Peterson, and Bellah — brought to bear upon a present and future need his study of the past. The essays cited are examples of the kind of scholarship we advocate, scholarship that addresses important issues of public culture. Not every scholar can do this scholarship. Not every scholar needs to. But we think this work is as critical to building the Learning Society we need as the pioneering work done by the scholar at the margins.

Late last year, when the California Council was updating its scholars file, it sent out a brief questionnaire asking scholars why they participated in public humanities projects, and what benefit they had derived from such participation. Over two-hundred scholars have returned the questionnaire, and though the Council cannot claim that the percentages reported below are representative of the professoriate nationally, it does think the weighting of the responses is significant. The sample is not skewed in favor of scholars involved in public programs, incidentally; about half the respondents had never participated in a public humanities program, though all would be willing to do so.

Of those who had, ninety-eight percent said their participation was an extension of their responsibilities as teachers, ninety-six percent said it was an extension of their responsibilities as scholars, and ninety-four percent said it was an extension of their responsibilities as citizens. Very few — less than one in six — saw participation as a distraction from either their scholarship or their teaching. Seventy-two percent said participation in public projects had influenced their scholarship positively and eighty-two percent said it had influenced their teaching positively. Not one respondent thought it influenced their teaching negatively. Yet three out of four scholars reported that their participation in humanities projects for the public had had no influence on promotion and tenure decisions.

One might expect this to be true at institutions where a premium is put on research, but in this sample, the reverse was true. Sixty percent of professors at the University of California said it had not influenced their promotion, as did two-thirds of California State University professors, eighty percent of private college professors, and ninety-four percent at communtiy colleges. We have two reactions to these statistics: dismay and admiration. Dismay that colleges and universities tend not to recognize in promotion and tenure decisions the service being performed by public-spirited professors, and admiration that so many scholars persist in lending their time and expertise to public humanities projects despite the lack of formal professional reward.

The alternative to making connections between scholars and the public is the perpetuation of mutual suspicion and hostility and the continuation of cultural polarization, the familiar split between “town” and “gown” and “low” and “high” culture. Those of us working with state humanities councils often find ourselves fighting two recalcitrant stereotypes: those of the remote, condescending pedant and the anti-intellectual citizen. Our task is to bring the scholar and citizen together on matters of mutual interest and concern. When we move beyond the stereotypes, when we initiate programs on important matters, we find plenty of room for creative interaction.

We all know where the public tends to get its information: broadcast media, mostly television, followed by newspapers and magazines. There may be other sources of information — one’s co-workers, friends, parents. But where do Americans get their knowledge? Where do they find knowledge that integrates information into broader contexts of value, time, and place? In a Learning Society, scholars would help supply this knowledge.

And we all know the scholar’s comfort with what A. Bartlett Giamatti called the “free and ordered space” of the university, with the principle of intellectual freedom, with the opportunity to pursure any thought deemed worth pursuing. But where do scholars go to test the importance of their ideas to the body politic? Where beside the classroom do they carry out their responsibility as scholar-citizens? In a Learning Society, the public would help provide this arena.

Culture and Monoculture

In Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah wrote that "cultures are dramatic conversations about things that matter to their participants." By this definition, American culture is created in part when scholars publish their research before their colleagues. It is also created in part when the public’s questions meet the scholar’s research and when the public’s opinions meet the scholar’s questions. If scholars are not encouraged and rewarded for interacting with the public, then the public will tend to get its knowledge primarily from broadcast media, while the scholar will tend to write without his fellow citizen in mind.

In academic circles, we currently hear debate about the relation of the dominant culture to minority cultures in the curriculum, but it is a mistake to define the dominant culture as the culture of dead European white males. The dominant culture is not the culture of Plato, Kant, Hume, and other luminaries of the Western tradition, but rather, the commercial consumer culture — the monoculture. It might be better called the anticulture, for it works to destroy authentic culture by frequently substituting stimulation for engagement, entertainment for reflection, stars for heroes, and private opinions for public dialogue. It invades our homes via television and radio, inhabiting space that could be occupied by books, stories of one’s neighbors and family, and dialogue on important concerns. As Wendell Berry observed sadly in his essay, “The Work of Local Culture,” most of his neighbors, who once spent their evenings talking to one another, “now sit until bedtime, watching TV, submitting every few minutes to a sales talk. The message of both the TV programs and the sales talks is that the watchers should spend whatever is necessary to be like everybody else.”

Instead of multicultural literacy, the monoculture tends to give us representations of non-whites as tokens or exotics. Instead of civic literacy, the monoculture tends to give us radio and television talk shows on topics of momentary interest. Instead of community literacy, the monoculture tends to give us southern California lifestyle and voyeurism via satellite dish. Instead of engagement, the monoculture tends to give us entertainment.

The monoculture is driven by the authority of demand, translated into ratings. Even when they appear to offer information or knowledge, as Neil Postman has demonstrated, the media really offer us only amusement. They must deliver excitement and the best way to do this is through sex and violence. The images they offer have lovely surfaces but little depth. They offer debates — which can be as exciting as prizefights — but no dialogue — which requires time and trust. Our obligation as humanists, then, is to counter the negative aspects of the monoculture. The texts of the humanities, their tradition of critical reflection and dialogue, their ability to convey compelling stories and real issues, make possible the civic conversation upon which community depends. Without the connecting impulse of the humanities, the pursuit is crippled beyond repair.

Questions for the Cultural Conversation

If the threat is thus defined, the challenge to us is to help foster an improved and expanded cultural conversation. The starting point is for us to listen to our fellow citizens, to take into account their deeply felt questions and concerns, and to find ways to bring humanistic learning to bear on those questions and concerns. We must, as scholars concerned with culture, as proponents of public service scholarship, make our criticism of the monoculture part of the new civic conversation.

We emphasize again that not all scholars need to do this. Both the scholar’s and the public’s quest for knowledge extends beyond civic issues and concerns, beyond immediate and contemporary social and cultural problems. Public programs should explore the full range of human experience and thought, but we do need more public service scholarship that connects with the American public on deeply-held concerns. What direction might such scholarship take?

We have identified six major questions that we believe are of genuine concern to the public. We recognize that many scholars are currently at work on more manageable, more specialized aspects of these large questions. By offering them here in their stark public formulation, we hope to remind scholars that simple, direct, compelling, and often enduring questions are the starting point of their own inquiries, and to suggest that a return to such questions can be useful to the scholar as well as to the public.

Can the earth be saved?

Although the threat of nuclear annihilation is still with us, surprising developments in Soviet-American relations and in Eastern European politics have renewed public confidence in the human ability to control weapons of mass destruction. But as one threat to human survival appears to wane, another has emerged — that of preserving the environment so that life on this planet can continue. Growing public recognition of the seriousness of the problems we face has lead to significant national and international initiatives to preserve the environment. Such efforts will most likely intensify in the years ahead.

Some think that corrective action will be too little and too late. They predict water shortages, smog alerts in our major cities, power blackouts, more oil spills, the death of the oceans, rivers, and lakes, the continued warming of the planet, nuclear waste dumped indiscriminately, the extinction of animal species at a staggering rate, and the collapse of entire civilizations. Others believe that, because we are aware of the challenge, we can act to prevent these catastrophes. If so, the cost will be extraordinarily high, not only in dollars but also in terms of personal and national sacrifice. We may have to accept controls over our natural resources in ways that we cannot now imagine, including water and energy fuels. Such controls may affect what we eat, how we live, how frequently we will be allowed to use remaining recreational land, how we move from one city to another, from home to work, the materials with which we build our homes and office buildings, how we stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Environmental issues will dominate life in the twenty-first century. The interested public knows that we will be forced to respond to these issues, and to do that, we will need to understand them fully. Ultimately, these issues will be dealt with both privately, in how we live, and publicly, in the policies that we as a people encourage or discourage, pay for or don’t pay for. Satisfactory resolution of the issues will depend upon increased citizen understanding of the cultural, economic, and historical forces that have contributed to our environmental crisis as well as upon increased citizen understanding of the ethical dimensions of the crisis and of proposed solutions. Issues of the environment should be a central concern of public service scholarship in the decade ahead.

What is America?

As we prepare for the global challenges of the twenty-first century, we should not underestimate the public’s interest in the aims and values of American civilization. Issues related to our national identity have been, of course, at the center of our cultural conversation since the founding of the Republic. But even as the rejection of communism in Eastern Europe is hailed as a vindication of “American” values, problems here at home are casting troubling shadows on those values.

Widespread use of drugs, violence on our streets and in our homes, the crisis confronting our courts and prison systems, make us ask: What’s wrong with America?

Frequent outbursts of racial violence, continued evidence of racial prejudice, expressions of religious bigotry, raise serious questions about the American character.

Chronic poverty, hunger, and homelessness in our midst make us question how committed we are to the ideal of equal opportunity and how much compassion we have for our fellow citizens.

The continued growth of impenetrable bureaucracies in government and business undermine our notions of personal freedom and self-government.

The growth of minority populations and the weakening of traditional majority culture prevent the making of easy connections between those cultures that contributed to the founding of the Republic and those that will shape our lives in the next century.

These and many other characteristics of contemporary American society lead to provocative and challenging questions about the aims of American civilization and the future of the United States. The public wants to know what the nation stands for, what it values, what its goals are, and where it is headed. What is America, and what does it mean to be an American?

We see signs that Americans are eager to discuss substantive issues related to American identity and values. Last year, Frances Moore Lappe published Rediscovering America’s Values, a book in which alternating conservative and progressive voices debate their respective views of freedom and human value. Public response has encouraged the author to create “Project Public Life” to provide groups who want to continue the discussion of American values begun in the book with the means to do so. Teachers of the humanities can make invaluable contributions to such efforts through public service scholarship, helping the public understand more fully the historical and ethical dimensions of what are thought to be uniquely American values.

Can our system of education work?

Many voices of education reform, such as those heard at last year’s Presidential Education Summit with the Governors, have based their arguments on the need to keep this nation economically competitive. Other proponents of reform, looking deeper, have argued that our society needs educated citizens who understand the world about them, citizens who are in touch with our nation’s history and culture, citizens who can exercise their public responsibilities, citizens who can have the skills to deal with the tough public issues that confront the nation.

At state and local levels, citizen concern over our educational institutions often tends to focus on more immediate questions. Will our children receive from schools the kind of education that will ensure employment? Will we be able to send our children to college? Will skyrocketing costs coupled with diminishing financial aid mean that thousands of talented youngsters will be denied the opportunity to go to college? If so, what will happen to these young people, many of whom are members of minority groups? Will our children be adequately prepared for all the challenges that will come their way in the decades ahead?

Unfortunately, much of the present debate surrounding education reform has failed to acknowledge the many accomplishments of American education in the twentieth century, including the opening of doors for minorities and the underprivileged. To ask the question “Can our education system work?” is, of course, to also ask about quality education — about the curriculum, textbooks, and the preparation of teachers and faculty. But, just as importantly, it is also to ask whether or not this nation is committed to ensuring access to quality education for all qualified students.

One, of the most important education issues facing the nation is whether or not we build on this record of accomplishment or allow the doors of education to close on many students. We must ask tough questions about high minority dropout rates in our schools and colleges, about the adequacy of student financial aid through governmental and private sources, about the extent and effectiveness of remedial education and student counseling programs, and about funding priorities. Central to equal opportunity is an education system that allows all citizens to achieve their potential.

Education issues brought into the public arena demand the best insights of public service scholarship. The monoculture provides little insight into these difficult issues. Citizens need and want to learn more about the historical, cultural, political, economic, and ethical dimensions of those issues facing American education.

Can we get along with other nations?

For most Americans, the world has become the “global village” that Marshall McLuhan wrote about nearly two decades ago. Modern technology, especially television, breaks down insularity. As the world gets smaller, communication between peoples increases. International communication now takes place daily among tens of thousands of citizens, in board rooms, market places, museums, and libraries, through teleconferences, telephones, and fax machines.

Citizens sense that what happens in other nations can have a profound impact on their nation and their lives. They sense that the jobs that they and their children will have in the decades ahead will be increasingly tied to the development of a single world economy with closely linked worldwide economic institutions. Famine in Africa, the closing of borders in China, the opening of borders in Eastern Europe, the level of production of remaining oil in the Middle East, Third-World default of loans from developed nations, free trade among nations of the European Economic Community — these and many other developments have important consequences for our economy here in the United States.

Likewise, citizens sense in new ways that political instability in one region of the world may have grave implications for international relations. They are aware of the potential impact of nationalistic fervor, of sweeping social and political revolutions. They see that Third-World nations can paralyze developed nations through terrorism and nuclear blackmail.

Citizens want to know what the prospects are. Will we be able to get along with other nations? What will the threats be?

Increased emphasis must be placed in our public service scholarship on understanding those nations and cultures whose futures bear so much on ours. Citizens want to know more about changes in the Soviet Union, about developments in Eastern Europe, about the history, culture, and problems of Central America, about the cultures and economic rise of nations in the Far East, about cultural and political conflict in Africa. We have an obligation to find new ways of expanding and enriching the public’s understanding of other nations and cultures.

Can we control technology?

Some scholars of the history of science, including Jacques Ellul, have proposed that modern technology is literally driving culture. That thought has weaved its way into public consciousness with the result that citizens sense the extent to which technology may be controlling us rather than the other way around.

To argue that technology is driving culture is to acknowledge two basic facts: that we often simply do not know the long-term consequences to society of a particular technology until the technology is in place for many years, and that we deal with ethical implications only after the emplacement of particular technologies.

We are still coming to terms with the unforeseen effects of older technologies, including those involving nuclear power. We are less clear about the consequences of newer technologies, especially in biology and medicine. Implanted organs give life to many, but lead to shortages and could lead to black markets for donor organs. Drugs that expand the life span might provide years of happy retirement living, but raise serious questions abut how society will pay for this increased longevity. The mass-administration of contraceptive agents might help to control the world’s population explosion, but in the wrong hands, they could be used to subjugate whole nations and peoples.

Our challenge, wrote Willis S. Harman in 1976, is this: “Now that man has developed consummate skill in technology — the art of how to do things — can he develop equal ability to choose wisely which things are worth doing?”

Citizens are worried that these issues of technology will be left to the experts. They are concerned by the growing gap between technologicical development and human values and by the unforeseen consequences of technology on society and culture. As proponents of public service scholarship, we must encourage our fellow humanists to take on these issues and to connect with the public on the historical, cultural, and ethical dimensions of old and new technologies.

This question, which holds a special place in Western civilization, is as relevant for Americans today as it was at the beginning of the Republic. The times are different though, and the threats to personal happiness may be different from what they were before.

Our pursuit of happiness has in large part been shaped by that dominant trait of the American character, radical individualism, and the accompanying quest for personal economic success.

Throughout our nation’s history, this pursuit has been beyond the grasp of millions of citizens. If one were born black rather than white, female rather than male, and from the lower rather than the middle or upper class, the odds against achieving material success were long. For those Americans of today who are trapped in poverty, who are unemployed or underemployed, lost in urban housing projects or rural settlements, often ill and frightened, the odds are also overwhelming.

But even for those who achieve economically, those who find the American dream to be alive, happiness often appears elusive. Marriages dissolve and families break up. Stock markets crash. Freeways and blood vessels clog. Wives are battered and children are abused. Deals sour and bosses fire. In what does happiness consist?

Of course the founding fathers did not answer this question for us. The pursuit of happiness is open-ended and Americans, often discontented with the shallow images of success and power provided by the monoculture, are eager to know what happiness might be and what endeavors might contribute to personal fulfillment and accomplishment. Many of the symptoms of present-day unhappiness, from positive endeavors like self-help groups to negative developments like drug addiction, tell us that we feel hollow inside, that we want something more, that the pursuit of happiness at the dawn of the twenty-first century may necessitate dramatic and far-reaching changes in our culture.

Public service scholarship could make a significant contribution to the nation by helping the public understand this contemporary hollowness, by charting the history of our unhappiness, by documenting the historical and cultural influences shaping our quests, by identifying and interpreting the happiness that we do find, by locating alternative understandings of happiness, by relating individual pursuits to collective pursuits. Once again an extraordinary opportunity exists for connecting scholarship with a genuine public concern.

Institutional Connections

Now we must ask a difficult question: How can a deeper, more inclusive cultural conversation that draws upon far more extensive public service scholarship take place? And how can this take place against the background of the powerful monoculture?

Perhaps the long-sought revitalization of public schooling in the nation, as well as the refocusing of undergraduate education, will occur when we recognize more fully the connections that must be made between formal education and the need for new literacies and genuine cultural conversation. No single event could be of more importance to the furtherance of cultural conversation than the development and implementation of curricula whose priorities include familiarizing students with the most important questions facing the nation, curricula that benefit from public service scholarship.

But reform of college curricula is not enough. If America is to be a Learning Society, if American culture is to be a conversation about what matters, opportunities for informal education and cultural conversation must be created. For this reason, the strength and vitality of all those institutions that comprise the parallel school matter greatly.

The improvement of American cultural conversation is the most important task of the humanities community in the last decade of this century. The recognition of this task would have enormous impact on the life of the humanities, inside and outside of the academy. New interest in public service scholarship would lead to new institutional connections of great importance. While it is difficult to talk about specific connections that might flow from the recognition of this important and demanding task, we offer the following prospects.

1. Public involvement in university life

Public participation in college and university life would be increased as new liaisons between the academy and the commununity are established. One can imagine advisory committees for newly organized programs that include public representatives to discuss connections between our cultural conversation and undergraduate curricula and between our cultural conversation and research in the humanities. One can imagine short-term and adjunct appointments to universities of persons in various professions and walks of life, individuals whose knowledge or experience lend depth and practicality to curricula. One can envision advisors for students from outside as well as inside the university.

2. Academic involvement in public life

With increasing interest expressed by the public and private sectors in this cultural conversation and the questions central to it, it is likely that humanities scholars would increasingly be called upon to provide valuable service outside the university. To respond to public questions, to stimulate discussion among employees, to offer perspectives and tentative answers, to address serious policy and ethical questions, to provide historical and cultural background, scholars would be brought in as consultants, writers, discussion leaders, critics. In doing so, the humanities community would be assuming a role in American society that has been played for a number of decades now by the scientific community, although on entirely different kinds of issues and questions.

3. Multidisciplinary programs

The central questions focusing public service scholarship and enhancing our civic conversation would become the driving force behind curricular development in our schools and universities. Since these questions cannot be formulated or answered in bits and pieces drawn from traditional disciplines, we envision the rise of new and far-reaching multidisciplinary courses and programs. Public school curricula as well as undergraduate curricula would be organized without much regard for traditional departmental lines. Courses connecting the humanities with the sciences, literature with history, foreign languages with foreign culture study, technology with ethics, philosophy with sociology and psychology, would be primary characteristics of the new curriculum.

4. University-school collaboration

Renewed recognition of the partnership that should exist between public school systems and institutions of higher education would occur. Hundreds of important experiments connecting colleges and universities with our public schools would follow. Many partnership models that already exist — scholars in the schools, university-sponsored summer seminars for public school teachers, in-service school programs focusing on new scholarship — would be replicated throughout the nation.

5. Growth of the parallel school

With increased attention paid to the extent and quality of American cultural conversation, the institutions that comprise the parallel school would continue to grow. Museums and public libraries would begin to get a greater share of charitable dollars and tax support. With renewed interest in community, regional, and ethnic history, historical societies would prosper. The publishing industry would continue to grow as citizens read more and more. The media industry, responding to public pressure to provide more in-depth coverage, would increasingly turn to scholars for insight, expertise, and program planning. Scholars would develop new listening and research skills in understanding citizen concerns. State governments would recognize the vitally important role played by state humanities councils through new appropriations. Federal support for these institutions would also grow, as the Congress recognizes the indispensable role played by the humanities in enriching our nation’s cultural conversation through public service scholarship.

6. Growth of public humanities centers

One of the most remarkable developments in the humanities in the past decade has been the founding of public humanities centers and institutes. Leadership for these institutions has come from inside as well as outside the academy. The lectures, conferences, symposia, television documentaries, and publications already produced by several of these centers have reached large national audiences, as seen, for instance, in the work of the institute for the Humanities at Salado, Texas on the universal problem of evil. As new connections are made between the humanities, public service scholarship, and cultural conversation, new centers would be established throughout the nation and increasing attention would be paid by existing centers to public issues.

7. Telecommunications

New communication technologies hold enormous potential as outlets for public service scholarship and as important resources for cultural conversation. In small high schools across the nation, in tiny villages and rural areas, students now can have access, through satellite television, to courses that would otherwise only be available in large, affluent urban districts — courses in Russian literature, technology and human values, and American women’s history. A world-renown university professor of medical ethics can provide guest lectures to college classes thousands of miles away from her campus. Public libraries, through satellite television, can offer new programs that focus on the essential questions of our time for adult audiences. Conversation between instructor and students, already possible, will be common in the decade ahead. The growth of public service scholarship would lead to increasing use of these technologies on behalf of the humanities.

8. A new reward system

The weight given to traditional standards for university promotion — scholarship, teaching, public service — would change. Colleges and universities, including our major research institutions, would strive for more flexible systems that would recognize the differing contributions that scholars make to institutions, to the life of learning, and to the wider society. Increased recognition would be given for university curriculum development, for collaboration with public schools on curricular concerns, for undergraduate teaching, and, most certainly, for public service scholarship. One of the biggest inhibitors of public service scholarship and of the forging of new connections between the humanities and public life is the way in which the promotion and tenure system frequently operates in American higher education. Scholars from major research universities with national stature should take the lead in promoting revision of the reward system.

Looking to the Twenty-First Century

In these comments, we have assumed that there is in this country an enduring connection between the health and vitality of democracy and the health and vitality of the humanities, a connection we would like to see strengthened by public service scholarship and a broader, deeper cultural conversation.

As we look to the twenty-first century, the great test of our democracy lies in enriching public conversation and extending participation in this conversation to all Americans. There are good reasons for optimism. The writers cited earlier, MacIntyre, Peterson, and Bellah, represent a growing number of scholars committed to public service scholarship.

We think of Americo Paredes’ contribution to public understanding of the historv and culture of Mexican-Americans.

We think of John Hope Franklin’s life-long quest to deepen public understanding of the history and culture of Black Americans.

We think of Walter Capps’ contribution to public understanding of the Vietnam War and of the young Americans who fought in that war.

We think of Carol Gilligan’s remarkable effort to expand our understanding of ethics and morality.

We think of Riane Eisler’s promising re-evaluation of the evolution of Western culture and the partnership model she proposes for meeting challenges of the twenty-first century.

We think too of the many scholars and film and television producers who have collaborated on such large-scale media projects as The World of Ideas, Eyes on the Prize, and Ethics in America.

And we think of the many scholars who participate in the conferences, symposia, exhibits, and local media programs sponsored annually in hundreds of communities throughout the nation by state humanities councils.

This optimism, however, should not keep us from seeing the primary challenge we face — that of strengthening and expanding connections between scholarship and the public.

As we wrestle with our public responsibilities as scholars, as we contemplate new and exciting ways whereby scholarship in the humanities can connect with enduring questions and timely issues, we will he reminded that public conversation on vital concerns, like any honest, personal conversation, can be difficult. We believe such difficulties are signs of vitality, not decline. If scholars in the twenty-first century can make the kinds of connections suggested here, scholars in the twenty-second century will never have to endure discussions about a crisis in the humanities. In a Learning Society, they’ll simply be too busy.

* Since first presented at the Wingspread Conference of the National Task Force on Scholarship and the Public Humanities, this paper has benefited from the comments of numerous readers. We are deeply grateful for ideas offered and suggestions made. We hope that this publication by the ACLS and the Federation of State Humanities Councils will stimulate additional ideas for connecting scholarship with the public life of the nation. We invite readers of the revised paper to write us: James Quay, California Council for the Humanities, 312 Sutter Street, Suite 601, San Francisco, California 94108; James Veninga, Texas Committee for the Humanities, 3809 South Second Street, Banister Place A, Austin, Texas 78704. [Back to text.]



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