Thoughts about how to change the game for advocates of the humanities
(and how to cope when you can’t)
a guest post by Owen Williams
I work in an institution that has long benefited from the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities in reaching a nationwide audience. Our primary and secondary education programs introduce some two million students to Shakespeare annually with NEH grants, while NEH Summer Institutes have extended scholars’ ability to investigate the literature and culture of Western Europe from roughly 1450 through the eighteenth century. NEH funding and guidance has helped us set the agenda for early modern digital humanities. It was the NEH that largely revived our fellowships program and launched centers dedicated to Shakespeare Studies and the History of British Political Thought in the 1980s that continue to this day. Most recently, we were able to leverage NEH support to send a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio to every state, where our partners—public libraries, museums, and universities—offered some 1,500 programs and welcomed over half a million visitors. I offer all this as context for what follows.
I have spent several weeks thinking about and advocating for the NEH in conjunction with the recent National Humanities Advocacy day. Despite a proposed budget that axes one of America’s most successful agencies, I feel I should explain why my feelings of incredulity are mixed with hope. The most recent election shows us that humanities advocates haven’t been doing all that well in one major area: encouraging others to see issues from multiple perspectives. Too often, we have ceded the field to those who vote before thinking, come to conclusions based on flimsy premises, and assume that one’s take on reality is the only reality. (We, too, may be the tiniest bit guilty of these traits. We are, after all, only human.) If we want to affect real and positive change in public engagement with the humanities, we need to transition ourselves to become active conversation partners with those with whom we disagree.
If the humanities actually are in crisis in America, that may be a good thing for all of us who advocate for them. When we see something that we value in trouble, we are much more driven to ask new questions, to search for new solutions, and to try unlikely avenues that will solve “the problem.” If we want to “save” the humanities, we need to locate the radical levers to change their place in American culture, and to meet our antagonists in genuine engagement. We should seek different leverage points through which small changes can have oversized impacts.
Social media allows for each of us to be vociferous in our opposition, to call out what we see as wrong or unjust, to advocate for those who have less political capital than we do. We need (at least I know I need) to know that we aren’t alone, and social media is an excellent way to prove this. But we shouldn’t equate our tribe’s likes and hearts with actually changing the larger culture.
How do we best communicate the value of the humanities to non-specialist, and even non-scholarly, audiences who are too often distracted by the sound bite and the tweet, who listen to “those idiots” on talk radio? It is up to each of us to reconsider how to profess the advantages that a robust approach to “the big questions” provides for our culture. It is those trained in humanities disciplines who pose these kinds of questions most productively, and it is humanities thinkers who must point out that the answers do themselves produce subsequent questions that are meaningful. Valuing this inquiry-based, iterative, and recursive process is the essence of the humanities. The content or topic is not the essence of the humanities, nor is finding an answer. It is the inquiry-based process through which a humanities-trained thinker approaches a problem that holds the humanities’ true value.
Let the Humanities be our Guide
I worry that, all too often, humanities advocates have lost sight of the lessons taught by philosophy, history, religion, and literature that we are supposed to be professing. What do I mean by that? The list below is obviously personal, but it offers my sense of how the humanities can help us reshape our process of humanities advocacy. You will have other thinkers and historical events that speak to you more powerfully. Think about what got you into this field and what sustains you in it. What ideas get you out of bed in the morning, and which thinkers have posed the big questions that continue to engage you?
Centuries ago, Sun Tzu told us that the battle is won or lost before it is joined. Planning (based on valid pre-analysis) is all. I take this to mean that we need to be engaged in our communities and support local public education directly by visiting classrooms and volunteering our knowledge in collaborative, not high-handed, ways. Get young humans in the habit of thinking about their place in the world, why it is the way it is, and what they might do about it.
Know Thy Audience
Shakespeare succeeded as a playwright by promiscuously using any and all resources that could be brought to bear in pleasing his audience. We know he borrowed heavily from others to give his audience what they wanted and that he worked with whomever he could that would give him a better play. Use the audience’s culture to communicate. When you mention T.S., if your audience thinks of Taylor Swift, use that. If a conservative writer says something you agree with, use that to build upon in advocating.
Purity is the Enemy of the Useful
The history of the Jesuits demonstrates how flexibility can make inroads in closed cultures when head-to-head challenges are repulsed. I admire them for not compromising their core beliefs while they used any possible accommodations to meet cultural expectations and received knowledge, even when those were radically at odds with their objectives. Our faith in a core belief—that studying the humanities makes us better humans—can sustain us.
Stop Talking for a Minute
Don’t assume you know what someone is thinking, or why they have come to that conclusion. Hesse’s Siddhartha taught us that listening—really listening—is the key to understanding. We can combine rigorous humanistic inquiry with the goal of broader cultural dissemination if we are quiet, listen, and admit that we sometimes don’t know all the answers. Don’t assert answers; embrace not knowing the question. And seek with respect.
Don’t Fear a Radical Idea
When Wollstonecraft advocated for a national education system that included women, she proposed perhaps the most original idea that Western Culture had yet heard. While it would take centuries for this profound concept to come to pass, a time will come when we must be as brave as she was in declaring what is right and just.
Model the Human … and the Humanities Method
And if all this fail, remember that Boethius took solace in the recognition that sometimes, no matter how well we’ve planned, how flexible or brave we’ve been, or how well we’ve listened, the only thing we truly control is our response to a situation. But that was Boethius. We will be frustrated, angry, and depressed, but if the core ideas of the humanities are worth professing, then we should be able to rely on them to sustain us.
Call to Action
Collectively, humanities scholars need to find ways to make the sometimes admittedly esoteric work humanities thinkers do more accessible to the public upon whom we rely, no matter how indirectly, for our support. This has the advantage of exposing other to the recursive, inquiry-based method that defines the humanities.
As humanities thinkers, our goal should be to challenge received ways of thinking—including our own—through productive and generative discussion. In short, seek out ways to meet those who you don’t already know (or cannot fathom why they think the way they do), and strive to understand why they believe what they believe. Seek out opportunities to partner in thinking with non-scholarly constituencies. Here are a few ideas:
- Visit the website of your state-based humanities council and explore how they meet the needs of underserved communities. Volunteer for what looks interesting, or propose what isn’t there.
- If you are a faculty member, ask your dean or chair how to go about initiating a partnership with your local public library, with outdoor- or environmentally focused clubs, and with public schools. Help budding thinkers of all ages pose questions for collaborative exploration.
- Propose a “humanities listening series” to your local librarian, and enlist her help in lining up those who will be good at moderating discussion on whatever topics emerge.
- Explore innovative and emerging media channels. When you’ve found one that works for you, ask three questions for every answer, solution, or declaration you offer.
We will never convince everyone that studying the humanities (or even thinking like a humanist) has intrinsic worth until we make it personal for each of them. Reaching out to those who don’t already agree with us is a radically extensible idea when we agree to let non-specialists set the topic and lead the approach. We need to move beyond valorizing only what we have mastered and meet the public where their interests are by formulating the questions and seeking the answers along with them. We just might learn something important.
I would welcome learning more about what you have heard or read lately that gives you hope for reaching out to those who think differently from you.
Owen Williams welcomes over 200 scholars to the Folger Institute’s programs at the Folger Shakespeare Library each year as the Assistant Director for Scholarly Programs. He has an A.B. in Classics, Greek, from Stanford, an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Tulsa (and wrote his thesis on Troilus and Criseyde), and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked on late-Elizabethan religious resistance and law. Editor of Foliomania! Stories Behind Shakespeare’s Most Important Book (2011, reissued 2015), he is currently co-editing Periodization and “Early Modern” English Temporalities: Reimagining Chronology through 16th- and 17th-century Habits of Thought, with Kristen Poole for the University of Pennsylvania Press.