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The Public Good: The Humanities in a Civil Society


Press Release

The American Academy sponsored a meeting on The Public Good: The Humanities in a Civil Society on March 9, 2009 at George Washington University.

Four speakers – Supreme Court Justice David Souter, Mellon Foundation President Don Michael Randel, University of Richmond President Edward Ayers, and Patty Stonesifer, who serves as Chair of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution and Senior Advisor to the Trustees of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – discussed the importance of the humanities in contemporary America. The program was moderated by Academy CEO Leslie Berlowitz.

Justice Souter used the example of two landmark Supreme Court cases – Plessey v. Ferguson in 1896 which upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation in railroad cars, and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision which overturned the Court’s “separate but equal” doctrine – to illustrate how an understanding of history is critical not only to informing judicial decision making but also to ensuring public understanding and acceptance of rulings by the Court. Souter warned: “Where history’s meaning is missing, cynicism will take its place.”

Dr. Randel spoke about the need for the humanities to justify themselves in tough times. He said that the humanities “contribute to leading a richer, more meaningful life, develop a quality of mind, a way of life in which the mind never ceases to be filled with wonder at the world and all of its people, in which there is an unquenchable thirst to understand more, to be moved by more kinds of beauty, and to share all of this with one's fellow human beings.”

Ms. Stonesifer described her personal journey from a career in high technology, including senior management positions at Microsoft, to the head of the world’s largest philanthropic foundation, to the governing board of the Smithsonian, one of the nation’s premier custodians of culture and the humanities. Reflecting on her work at the Gates Foundation, she noted the importance of humanities-inspired activities, such as radio drama, street theater and poetry, in reaching at-risk members of society in the developing world.

President Ayers, a historian of the American South, spoke optimistically about the promise of digital technology to interpret and explain history, as well as to elevate and enhance the practice of all humanities disciplines. He also discussed the practical life skills derived from the study of the humanities: “They bring profoundly useful gifts of broadened vision, they prepare people to see the largest context and consequences of things, to make subtle distinctions, create new experiences, to deal with ambiguity and novelty and complexity.”

In her introduction, Berlowitz commented on the Academy’s more than decade-long commitment to the humanities through scholarship, data collection, and advocacy. She noted the pivotal role that the Academy played in helping to found the American Council of Learned Societies, the Independent Research Libraries Association, the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Humanities Center, and described the recently published Humanities Indicators, a prototype online resource. Modeled after the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators, it is the first comprehensive set of statistical information about the humanities in the United States, designed to address chronic data deprivation in the field.

All of the presenters discussed strategies for the humanities community and higher education to more effectively advocate on behalf of the field, stressing the need to make a compelling case for robust humanities programs and well-prepared teachers at the K-12 and post-secondary levels.

George Washington University President Steven Knapp welcomed the audience of 250 leaders from the national humanities community, including representatives from learned societies, federal agencies, congressional offices, and colleges and universities. A lively question and answer session followed the formal remarks. The event also drew extensive interest from the press and was broadcast live by C-SPAN.


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