American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 11
National Task Force
on Scholarship and
the Public Humanities
by Michael M. Sokal
After the keynote address, the work of the Conference organized itself around five panel discussions each addressing a broad subject area related to the general aims of the meeting and a final plenary session designed to bring together the major themes that emerged during the course of the conference. Each session opened with brief presentations by three or four participants, followed by discussion and debate in which all in attendance took an active part. The paragraphs that follow present the organizers initial sketch of the goals of each session, and seek to distill the essence of each, as it emerged from the discussion of the group as a whole.
The Humanities and the Public (Sondra Myers, chair; Adrian Malone, Stephen Nissenbaum, Joan Hinde Stewart, and Victor R. Swenson, panelists):
The future of the humanities depends upon the publics support of the scholars work. This is true in a real sense for public higher education institutions as well as private ones. By the same token, the fruits of scholarship enrich public knowledge and wisdom. Scholarship and public humanities programs are thus reciprocally dependent upon each other.
There is an increasing demand as well for more humanities content in the curriculum of schools and in programs of vocational and professional education. There is emerging, in short, a broad public recognition that the humanities are important to the well-being of the culture, in the classroom and out, of young people and for adults.
What is the role and responsibility of the scholar in responding to these needs? How can we increase public demand for, and support of, the humanities? How can scholars and their membership organizations become more responsive to public needs and interests? How can scholars be helped, encouraged, and prepared to plan a more active role in the print and television media? How can the public be educated to appreciate more fully the importance of scholarship to society and particularly to the vitality of public culture?
In responding to these concerns and questions, the panelists and others decried the perception that an individual cannot be both a fine scholar and an active participant in public programs, and expressed special concern that this perception has become a self-fulfilling prophecy that prevents scholars from taking part in such activities. By contrast, most who spoke stressed the good news: i.e., that (in Swensons words) scholars adore participating in public humanities programs. The panel described how public humanities programs were able to weave the arts and humanities into the fabric of state government (Myers), to sponsor dozens of lively and well-attended discussions of humanities subjects throughout the state of Vermont (Swenson), and to produce films and television programs that effectively reached out to large audiences and of which scholars had good reason to be proud (Malone and Nissenbaum). In doing so, they all described how they abandoned what Stewart called the dissemination model and developed new ways to stimulate active public involvement with issues of importance for the life of the mind. Stewart, for example, cited the Humanities Extension Service at North Carolina State University as an example that other institutions might find valuable.
Nissenbaum stressed that academic humanists involved with public programs of all sorts should truly collaborate, and not simply advise. Scholars, he continued, have to learn more about how public groups museums, libraries, historical societies reach their decisions. Similarly, scholars have to learn about the technicalities of the new media with which they have to work. He called for field guides for humanists who work in museums, on state councils, and with film producers, and claimed that such guides would permit scholars to work better with these groups.
More specifically, Malone discussed his experiences in producing The Ascent of Man and Smithsonian World and gave examples of how such collaboration worked effectively. In response to a question, he played down the importance of control of the final cut, and instead stressed that the early and active interplay of scholar and producer that Nissenbaum and he were advocating would defuse any potential problems. He especially urged humanists to look to the full range of electronics technology and not just educational television as a tool to reach out to the public. He agreed that the educational and academic communities (in their largest sense) had to reclaim the Public Broadcasting System. But he emphasized instead the potential of interactive video technology, based on computers, which would actively lead the user who would no longer simply be a viewer to think about issues of importance to humanists. The session closed, however, with several participants reminding the conference that traditional approaches still continue to be effective, even as new technologies emerge.
The Parallel School (Jane Renner Hood, chair; Ellsworth Brown, Dorothy Schwartz, and Bruce Sievers, panelists):
Outside the classroom, the public hears, reads, and learns about the humanities through institutions that Lynne Cheney has labeled the parallel school: humanities councils, historical societies, museums, libraries, chautauquas, and educational television.
A second tier of institutions includes independent research libraries and humanities centers on or near university campuses whose primary aim is the encouragement of scholarship in the humanities. There have been few connections between these institutions and the communities in which they reside.
To what extent do these institutions constitute a community of common interests? Are there already networks among these institutions through which scholars can, do, or should work? What is the nature of the relationship between the parallel school and the humanities councils on the one hand, and scholars and the learned societies on the other? What are the opportunities for collaboration? What are the impediments? What are the shared interests? What can the humanities council and learned society, the ACLS and the Federation together do to support and participate in the work of this parallel school? To what extent can humanities research centers and independent research libraries be encouraged and supported in an effort to make contact between the exciting scholarship that they support as a matter of course and the larger public?
Though each panelist structured his or her remarks differently, each argued against the utility (and the use) of the term parallel school. Brown emphasized that the parallel school shouldnt be parallel, but should be part of the whole. Public humanities programs and institutions should be integrated into the mainstream of American education. Each panelist also mentioned ways in which this separateness has hurt both the academic and public humanities and, more importantly, American society at large. Brown, for example, argued that humanists should get involved in all the current debates about the future of education, which should embrace them and their concerns much more than they do. Similarly, Sievers cited three missed opportunities for the humanities: the failure of the American Association for the Advancement of the Humanities; the debate over the Helms amendment; and the ongoing vacuum at PBS.
These concerns led Brown to argue that the public humanities should get support from our cities, counties, states, and all other governmental bodies that support education and, more generally, for a national consortium for the humanities, which would sponsor what he called a national marketing campaign for the humanities.
Having made these points, the panelists discussed ways in which scholars had been actively involved in public humanities programs under their direction. For example, Schwartz described Maines program for the Columbian Quincentennial, developed by the Maine Humanities Council in conjunction with other institutions. From its earliest stages, it involved both scholars and those representing public humanities institutions. The panelists presentations and the discussion that followed both emphasized ways in which this involvement might be increased and deepened. Schwartz, for example, outlined three conditions that must be created in attempts to reach this goal: (1) Scholars should not be mere appendages to, presenters in, etc., public programs. They must be involved from the beginning. (2) Scholars should be more than simply volunteer experts. They must be given incentives to participate. (3) Scholars need a better sense of their audiences, which would help them communicate more effectively. More generally, Brown emphasized that friendly scholarship can bridge the gap between academic and public humanities, and described how the Chicago Historical Society has sought, benefited from, and responded to an increased role for scholars in the preparation of its exhibits.
Other discussion focused on how the humanities could respond to concerns about the future of American society that informed the keynote address. In particular, Sievers emphasized the life of the mind in society and stressed the strategic planning and other initiatives to build public participation that he would mandate if he were humanities czar. These included: the preparation of a mission statement for the humanities; the strengthening of institutional connectedness among all organizations; the targeting of specific constituencies to which the humanities should be actively marketed; the making of connections with other groups, including professional societies, special interest groups, and organizations like the American Association of Retired People; the soliciting of direct aid from such sectors of the business community as local advertising councils, the media, etc.; and the expansion of the resources available for the humanities. He closed by outlining the components of a plan. These included the compilation of a database of humanities institutions in an area, which would be useful for teachers, networking, etc., and would serve as a service bureau for the media; ethics projects, which most professions seem to welcome; projects involving the humanities and the professions more generally; lobbying efforts to put education in the humanities and the arts on the state agenda; planting brokers in the schools, who will establish links between humanities and arts organizations, and the schools themselves; media projects of all sorts; and organizing governors cultural advisors.
In response to Browns and Sievers calls for greater fundraising initiatives on behalf of the humanities targeted at foundations and governmental bodies, the session at large discussed development strategies that had worked and not worked in different contexts. As Stanley N. Katz emphasized, humanities programs that address questions of public policy and local issues attract the greatest support. All agreed, but other participants, including Brown and Sievers, suggested approaches that have worked well in particular environments in gaining support for those humanities subjects not directly related to public-policy issues. As these typically involved adopting the techniques of, or making links with, fundraisers for the arts, the session also debated the similarities and differences between the arts and humanities, and their respective communities.
In particular, Susan Ball and Phyllis Franklin discussed the emerging National Cultural Alliance, which hopes to bring together many organizations including ACLS and the Federation concerned with state and federal policies for the arts and the humanities. They emphasized that it originated in the arts community, and that humanities institutions were brought in only as an afterthought.
Higher Education and the Public Humanities (Peggy W. Prenshaw, chair; Douglas Greenberg, Estus Smith, John C. Unrue, and Richard Warch, panelists):
The tenure system is practically universal in institutions of higher education in the United States. Typically, the decision to award tenure and promotion to an academic candidate is based on an assessment of that candidates (1) scholarship, (2) teaching, and (3) service. Together these criteria, weighed differently in different kinds of institutions, constitute the standards of judgment of the academic reward system.
To what extent does the existing reward structure inhibit scholar participation in programs for the public? If the reward or incentive structure is a problem, what is the nature of this problem? Does it vary among kinds of institutions, such as private and public universities, land grant institutions, public and private liberal arts colleges, community colleges? Are there imaginative programs that reward scholarly involvement in the community?
Universities, whether public or private, sit inside society rather than on its margins. They have a responsibility to the public as educational institutions. How can they be encouraged to exercise that responsibility more fully and effectively? In what way does involvement with a public actually enrich and contribute to the quality of scholarship?
In keeping with the organizers sketch of this sessions goals, much discussion revolved around the way in which universities reward faculty members for teaching, scholarship, and service, and the effects of this reward system on participation in public humanities programs. Prenshaw, for example, argued that the tension between scholarship and service parallels (and is analogous to) the better-known tension between teaching and scholarship. At the same time, all who took part in the discussion emphasized the many intellectual and social benefits that can accrue to those academic humanists who participate in public humanities programs. Warch, for example, cited Reinhold Niebuhrs comments on the relationship between theology and parish ministry to argue that participation in public humanities programs informs, extends, and enriches both scholarship and teaching. In the same way, Smith (both in his presentation, and in response to questions) emphasized how participation in public humanities programs can help individuals fulfill their responsibility toward society at large. He argued that the American educational system is doing all too little to address the needs of the illiterate and the poorest members of our society, and it should do much more.
Many who spoke in this session thus emphasized that one way to attack the problem embodied in the traditional academic reward system would be to stop referring to participation in public humanities programs as service but to redefine it as applied research or performance or (as Warch suggested) a form of teaching to larger-than-typical audiences. In making this point, for example, Prenshaw cited her own studies on William Faulkner and land-use policy, and urged academic humanists to look for correspondences with other fields, and not simply to the model of traditional scholarship in science. Others who suggested such a redefinition referred to the keynote addresss emphasis on public service scholarship and much discussion revolved around ways in which this goal might be implemented. In doing so, all stressed the need for systematic mechanisms to evaluate such public service scholarship and Warch, a college president, noted that most colleges and universities are prepared, at least rhetorically, to reward this activity.
While agreeing about the significance of public service scholarship, Greenberg and Unrue both argued that in many academic settings traditional scholarship must remain the facultys highest priority. Unrue stressed the need for newer universities, like his own, to establish their standing, and that a growing scholarly reputation is an important part of the goals of any university. His faculty want to be competitive in the world of scholarship. Similarly, though with reference to a different kind of institution, Greenberg argued that even if we could change the reward system at major research universities, we should not. He portrayed these institutions as the current and continuing source of much of new humanistic (and scientific) knowledge. He also emphasized that both teaching and public programs depend on this scholarship, and that the next generation of both scholars and public humanists will be trained at such institutions.
Greenberg then extended this point and spoke to the question (which others also addressed) of who would be involved in public humanities programs. He argued that major universities should encourage graduate students to participate in such programs, and get them involved when theyre most excited about the humanities. Doing so would help build their life-long commitment to public humanities programs and would also, through the honoraria they would earn, help support them when they most need such support. Darwin Turner agreed, and urged the Task Force to educate state humanities councils to accept graduate students.
Warch disagreed, however, arguing that such an approach would convince graduate students that public service scholarship was something to be abandoned as an academic humanist matured. He argued instead that participation in public humanities programs should be the reward for faculty accomplishment. He suggested (somewhat ironically) that institutions should make junior faculty members work only on traditional scholarship, and allow only senior professors to do public-oriented work. Prenshaw and other participants, however, stressed the advantages of involving the reservoir of independent scholars and early-retired professors in public humanities programs.
Stanley N. Katz stressed that the problems under discussion were part of a larger problem, and cited the way in which different universities perceive teaching-oriented as opposed to research-oriented Fulbright awards. Despite these discussions, one theme permeated the session: most agreed that academic-based scholars greatly enjoy participating in public humanities program and, typically, do so quite effectively. As Warch noted, reward systems play little role in determining the actions of these professors. Similarly, Kenneth Gladish reported that the Indiana Humanities Council never has problems getting scholars to take part in its programs. He continued, however, by asking how this pool of talent should be used, and emphasized that, in public humanities programs, the best scholars should be asked to do something other than simply repeating what they say to their students.
The Humanities Council and the Learned Society (Darwin T. Turner, chair; Susan Ball, Arnita Jones, Jay Kaplan, and Sheilah Mann, panelists):
The learned society is a membership association of scholars in a particular discipline or subdiscipline in the humanities. Learned societies usually are national with individual members in every state, and advance scholarship and protect or promote the professional interests of their members. The humanities council, in contrast, is a grant-making and program-conducting entity that involves humanities scholars of all disciplines in programs for the public. There is one humanities council in every state, and in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
What is the relationship between humanities councils and learned societies? Are there already ongoing relations among some? To what extent do their activities support each other? To what extent do they operate at cross-purposes? Do humanities councils and learned societies share common missions? In what ways are their missions and objectives not complementary? Do they share common needs? If so, what are these needs, and how can they be met? Are there impediments to certain kinds of relations or relationships? What does one group have that the other group needs?
What is the responsibility of the scholarly association to the public? Now can learned societies and humanities councils profitably work together?
The panelists all stressed the benefits that accrue to academic humanists who participate in public humanities programs, and that such participation allows academic humanists to fulfill their responsibilities to the public at large. Kaplan, for example, noted that most academics are not scholars, most scholars are not intellectuals, and public humanities programs provide a major source of feedback for those who participate in them. Such feedback is especially important for teachers at institutions other than major research universities. He also emphasized that public humanities programs enable academics to take an active part in the ongoing debate over the place of learning in our society and an opportunity to have their voices heard by a larger public.
With such benefits in mind, Ball emphasized the responsibility of learned societies to involve their members in public humanities programs. Both she and Jones described the various ongoing projects that the College Art Association and the Organization of American Historians currently sponsor with this goal in mind. For OAH, these include the History Teaching Alliance, which works with high school teachers and with state humanities councils; joint meetings with such groups as the National Council on Public History and the Society for History in the Federal Government; special sessions (at each OAH meeting) on teaching and outreach programs sponsored by the state humanities council of the state in which the meeting is held; and reviews in the Journal of American History of such public history work as films and museum exhibits. She remarked that these activities seemed controversial at first to many academically-based OAH members, but now appear to be working well. She also emphasized the significance of journal reviews, which do more to legitimate the field than anything else. In the same way, Ball described CAA annual-meeting sessions on teaching that have been co-sponsored by state humanities councils and funded by the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE).
All panelists outlined both general and specific ways in which learned societies could work to serve the goals of public humanities programs. On one level, for example, all participants stressed that learned society newsletters should devote more attention to opportunities of all sorts in the public humanities, and should publicize those programs that proved especially effective. On another level, participants stressed the importance of the proliferating models provided by existing and ongoing programs. For example, Turner urged ACLS itself to establish a category of fellowships for public humanities scholarship, while Mann referred to the highly effective chautauqua short-course program in the sciences sponsored by the National Science Foundation and modeled after the late-nineteenth-century program in the humanities which is now being phased out despite its great success. She also described how scientists rotate into and out of program directorships at NSF and urged humanists to adopt similar practices with the agencies that fund their scholarship and educational programs.
Other participants and discussants emphasized that learned societies should do more to help legitimate public humanities scholarship. For example, Jones remarked that such organizations could help set standards for training programs for public humanists, and provide codes of practice that would help them deal with such issues as negotiating contracts, requirements of confidentiality and, most generally, ethical concerns. This suggestion proved attractive to many participants and, in the discussion that followed, many suggested matters that such codes of practice might address. In his formal remarks, Kaplan emphasized that such credentialing might attract additional scholars to public humanities programs, and Turner also noted that any set of standards established by learned societies in response to an ACLS-backed initiative would carry great weight. He thus called for a white paper addressed to college and university administrators on the value of academic participation in public humanities programs, and cited the effect of an analogous statement on teaching loads in English departments thirty years ago.
Most generally, in addition to the points already noted here, the panelists and other participants mentioned others ways in which learned societies and state councils could work together to promote their common goals. These included, among others, brokering to initiate joint meetings, projects, and the like, and preaching and lobbying to expand the role of the humanities in a wide range of academic and public programs. Jones observed that learned societies provide a good pulpit from which to talk people in higher education into addressing questions of larger importance. For his part, Kaplan addressed the need for a permanent liaison between the ACLS and the Federation, or between ACLS constituents and the Federation. He also argued that the two groups are ready for a major joint project, though it wouldnt be easy to select the right one, and urged ACLS and the Federation to seek one that would give us the visibility we seek and also contribute to national life. Among the possible areas of focus he suggested were education and the media and, in response, Greenberg noted that ACLS will be starting a major program in K-12 education, building on the extremely active programs within the learned societies themselves.
The ACLS and the Federation (Ronald Perrin, chair; Phyllis Franklin, Kenneth Gladish, Eugene Sterud, and Robert C. Vaughan, panelists):
The national consortia of learned societies and the humanities councils are the ACLS and the Federation. These two institutions also are the national voice and representative of the interests of their members. The ACLS represents scholarship; the Federation (through its membership) the publics interest in scholarship.
How can the ACLS and the Federation profitably work together to advance scholarship and programs for the public? How can these two organizations help join the national interest of the scholarly community with the publics need to know? What steps can ACLS take to lead its constituent societies and their members in the direction of undertaking greater support for the public humanities? How can the Federation assist its own state councils in identifying and exploiting the expertise of a wide range of scholars? What steps can learned societies themselves take to make opportunities available for public activities by their members? What ongoing structure of relations can be devised so that communication between the ACLS and the Federation can be made permanent?
In their presentations, all panelists stressed the need to institutionalize connections and to go beyond the personal, and both Franklin and Gladish described the environment out of which these bonds would have to grow. Both, for example, emphasized the historical importance of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Franklin focused on the academic context of further institutional links. She observed that research is a defining characteristic of higher education, but at the same time stressed that the academy already does much to support a large range of public programs. In particular, she noted the institutional diversity of higher education, with its wide range of reward systems, strong regional orientations, and many variations. These distinct practices lead directly to what she described as the great variability in academic careers, and she cited her own studies on early-twentieth-century English Departments, which illustrated this variability even before the job crunch of the 1970s (which clearly magnified the phenomena).
Gladish underlined the public humanities context. He noted that most public humanities money is raised and spent by colleges, libraries, museums, and other NEH-supported institutions and public programs, rather than by state councils, which he described as bit players on most stages, most of the time. He noted, however, that many specific suggestions made in the previous sessions of ways in which learned societies and state humanities councils could profitably work together would help the councils reach their goal of parity with other public humanities institutions.
Having delineated this context, several participants sketched specific initiatives that would promote further cooperation and collaboration, thus responding to Perrins call for nuts-and-bolts suggestions, and offering answers to his opening question, Where do we go from here? Franklin sketched several potential courses of actions. The most general included: redefining work in the public humanities as performance or applied research, and not as service (as Prenshaw and others had suggested); reminding all parties that there is more than one model for achievement, reward, and success in the humanities; and mapping the territory to inform academics what state councils are and what they do. In this connection, she noted the professional ignorance of many scholars, and urged state councils to distribute a directory of their programs to all learned societies. More specifically, she exhorted learned societies to take note of all state council competitions, addresses, activities, successful programs, and so forth, and urged both societies and councils to communicate with each other on funding matters.
In his presentation, Sterud similarly stressed communication and, in particular, urged learned societies to use their newsletters (and, where applicable, their popular magazines) to publicize opportunities for public humanities work by their members. He emphasized that the societies should reach out beyond their memberships, perhaps to all alumni of all departments in their fields, who might also be approached for financial support. More generally, he suggested that the societies might consider changing how they do business and, perhaps, establish vocational or popular arms, much as the American Anthropological Association changed in mid-1980s. He cited the Archaeological Institute of America which has among its members as many as fifty to sixty percent non-professionals and many regional groups. He suggested that those participating in a broadly based network might work together on a major national initiative, and focus on a national issue at state (and disciplinary) levels. He mentioned as a potential focus the Columbian Encounter, which would provide an opportunity to change the textbooks on one level, to reach out to many audiences on another, and, in general, to demonstrate the importance and establish the presence of the humanities in the American culture.
In his remarks, Vaughan urged all participating to focus on what they can do together for the humanities in the United States, and how they can together transform American culture. Perrin picked up on this point in closing and emphasized that learned societies and state councils each can provide an untapped reservoir of expertise for the other. He also made his own nuts-and-bolts suggestion; i.e., that the ACLS and the Federation ought to establish a permanent steering committee to synthesize what the Task Force has started, and to publish a national humanities magazine, analogous to Scientific American.