Amateur Humanist

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Rereading the 1964 U.S. humanities report


The report whose advocacy of a National Humanities Foundation gave rise to the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities was sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Council of Graduate Schools in the United States, and the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, and chaired by the then-president of Brown University, Barnaby Keeney.

I’ve been reading the document, and just working my way through it’s rather truncated argument (the bulk of the volume consists of individual reports from the range of humanistic professional associations weighing in with their own particular statements of support) with interest both to better understand the historical justifications given for humanistic work and to hopefully find resources usable in this day and age.  To some extent such a reading has been a disappointment.  A reflection of its political environment, as all such reports are, most of the text centers on the logistics of planning for such a foundation, and rather less attention that I’d expected is devoted to making a conceptual case for humanistic inquiry.  Still, the sense of confidence in the broader enterprise is refreshing – the report is suffused with an often explicitly stated refusal to cede any superior ground to the sciences, for example.

Consider these ringing claims:

Upon the humanities depend the national ethic and morality, the national aesthetic and beauty or the lack of it, the national use of our environment and our material accomplishments – each of these areas directly affects each of us as individuals.  On our knowledge of men [sic], their past and their present, depends our ability to make judgments – not least those involving our control of nature, of ourselves, and of our destiny.  Is it not in the national interest that these judgments be strong and good?   The stakes are so high and the issues of such magnitude that the humanities must have substantial help both from the federal government and from other sources.

Or this, with apologies for the then inevitably gendered language, from the Committee on the Schools:

…we would assert that the humanities play a uniquely effective role in determining a man’s behavior and values.  Included in the humanities are those studies that help man to find a purpose, that endow him with the ability to criticize intelligently and therefore to improve his own society, and that establish for the individual his sense of identity with other men both in his own country and in the world at large.  Men and women who have a thoughtful appreciation of the humane studies understand more fully than others the complexities with which we all live, and they have the potential for dealing with those complexities more rationally and more successfully than people who are unaware of or indifferent to the humanities.  Those who understand and appreciate the humanities also lead more rewarding lives both within their own hearts and minds and in their relations with their neighbors and associates, their communities and their country.

These are bracing sentiments, hard to imagine being expressed in today’s more pessimistic time, but still powerful and even inspiring…

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