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2012 National Humanities Alliance Annual Meeting

posted by Linda Downs — Apr 18, 2012

Linda Downs is CAA executive director, and Anne Collins Goodyear, associate curator of prints and drawings at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, is the incoming president of the CAA Board of Directors.

Anne Collins Goodyear and Linda Downs attended a day of meetings and panel discussions presented by the National Humanities Alliance (NHA). The event, held on March 19, 2012, in Washington, DC, stressed the practical significance of the humanities for a democratic society and highlighted the important contributions of recent research projects. It also helped prepare participants for Humanities Advocacy Day, taking place on Capitol Hill the following day. CAA is a member of NHA, which advocates federal funding of the humanities. In addition to its annual meeting, NHA organizes Humanities Advocacy Day, which brings critical information to participants and prepares them for congressional visits to support the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the Fulbright Program, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, and numerous Department of Education programs in the humanities.

The first panel introduced a wide variety of historical research projects, such as the Dictionary of American Regional English, which took ten years to develop, according to its senior editor, Luanne von Schneidemesser, and now has a broad value to researchers of all kinds, from linguists to forensic detectives. Kenneth Price, a professor of literature at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, discussed the Walt Whitman Archive, an online resource of thousands of documents related to the poet’s writings, and Colin Gordon, a history scholar at the University of Iowa, talked about his recent book, Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City. Finally, Connie Lester, a professor of history at the University of Central Florida, presented the Regional Initiative for Collecting the History, Experiences, and Stories, an oral-history program that is taking place in her state. Each project demonstrated its uses to both academic and public researchers.

Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, led a second panel that focused on “The Role of the Humanities in Undergraduate Education,” offering a historical case study of James Madison to illustrate the value of prolonged study in the humanities as a means to cultivate flexible and cohesive thinking. Madison studied the classics and philosophy at New Jersey College (later renamed Princeton University). After graduation, having no specific profession or direction, he moved back home with his parents and asked the president of the college if he could continue studying under his tutelage, in effect becoming the first unofficial graduate student of the college. Madison eventually put his academic background to good use when he became the primary author of the Bill of Rights, adopted by the House of Representatives in 1789, and was later elected the fourth president of the United States. Rawlings stressed that liberty and learning are intrinsic to the humanities, noting that countries with autocratic political systems can have successful science and math curricula but that the arts and the humanities require freedom of expression to flourish.

The panel’s second speaker, Raynard Kington, president of Grinnell College and acting director of the National Institutes of Health, observed that humanities majors tend to be “life-long learners,” and that many leaders, even in the sciences, have strong humanities training. The humanities, he noted, might benefit from a stronger advocacy base that could demonstrate the tangible benefits of humanities training as a means of encouraging legislators and administrators to protect humanities education, even at times of financial duress.

The role of the humanities in undergraduate education in direct relation to the job market was addressed by Sandra L. Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County, which boasts a student body of 45,000. She emphasized that two-year schools provide every student with an introduction to the humanities regardless of his or her associate-degree curriculum. Kurtinitis’s figures were astounding: 50 percent of all incoming freshmen at American colleges and universities are enrolled in one of 1,200 community colleges across the country, and the average age of the freshman class has risen to twenty-eight. Five million more students, she told us, will enroll in community colleges by the year 2020. In closing, Kurtinitis emphasized that all degrees lead to jobs, whether students decide to pursue careers as varied as poets, artists, nurses, or electricians.

In his keynote address, Richard H. Brodhead, president of Duke University and cochair of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, described the blue-ribbon panel of corporate and academic leaders who have come together to address the importance of the humanities in education and American life. Echoing Raynard Kington’s story about James Madison, Brodhead evoked an America that was built on the values of humanism and a strong liberal-arts education and called attention to the plight of budget cuts across the country that are scaling back humanities programs in elementary and high schools.

Brodhead stressed the wide-ranging, lifelong effect a thorough education in the humanities can have for an individual, no matter what his or her chosen profession is. “The kind of intelligence that has brought the broadest benefits to our society,” he said, “is an active, integrative mind awakened to multiple forms of knowledge and able to combine them in new ways.” As part of Humanities Advocacy Day, on March 20, the panel presented recommendations to President Barack Obama and to Congress in support of the humanities in higher education.

NHA has published a summary of the 2012 annual meeting and Humanities Advocacy Day, and Duke Today has printed the written text of Brodhead’s keynote address, “Advocating for the Humanities.”

Images from top to bottom: Jim Leach, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities; Luanne von Schneidemesser; Raynard Kington; and Richard H. Brodhead (photographs provided by the National Humanities Alliance)