It was a pleasure to join University of Michigan faculty, staff and students in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
NEH Chairman Bro Adams visited our campus Wednesday as part of the nationwide celebration. He spoke about the importance of public and collaborative humanities during a session with students and faculty before sharing his thoughts about the past and the future of the humanities at an evening reception.
Adams noted that the policy vision that resulted in the establishment of the NEH and the National Endowment for the Arts was expressed right here on our campus – 52 years ago. In the 1964 U-M Spring Commencement address, President Lyndon Johnson outlined the qualities of a “Great Society,” describing it as “a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the (human) race.”
A year later, in September 1965, Johnson signed legislation that called for the creation of the NEH and NEA. The action followed a recommendation by the National Commission on the Humanities, a group of scholarly and educational organization leaders.
In his commencement address in Michigan Stadium, Johnson told graduates that our nation had “called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all of our people,” but we could aspire to much more as a society. He said:
“The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization. Your imagination and your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.”
I am proud that University of Michigan has worked in close partnership with the NEH over the last five decades, with our faculty receiving 390 N-E-H grants and fellowships since the first round of funding in 1966.
U-M’s faculty and student humanists have helped us enhance the culture of excellence in research and teaching that has been a hallmark of the U-M for nearly 200 years.
The humanities represent the heart of our liberal arts community here at U-M. Humanists teach judgment and interpretation in a way that enables students to deal with uncertainty and contingency.
They work at the interface between values, history, ideas and culture. They cut across all professions, teach students how to succeed in every workplace, and fully participate as citizens in every community.
Provost Martha Pollack noted that digital technology is helping us increase collaboration among humanists. She also is working to help us tap into our amazing potential by bringing humanities researchers together for major projects under our new Humanities Collaboratory in the Institute for the Humanities.
Before introducing Chairman Adams, Professor Anne Curzan, associate dean for the humanities in our college of Literature, Science and the Arts, discussed a few of the ways we are engaging students in the humanities, including the Rackham Graduate School’s Arts of Citizenship program, and a new course offered this semester called “22 Ways of Being Human.”
“I am often asked some version of ‘Why do we need the humanities?’” Curzan said. “I look at these people and think, ‘Because justice. Because history. Because being human.’”
I am pleased to work with Provost Pollack and our deans, faculty members and staff to further enhance the strength and impact of the humanities in our classrooms, labs, museums, performance venues, and everywhere else at the U-M.
We have so much to contribute as a community of scholars.
As Chairman Adams said, the humanities provide “abundant opportunities to engage the public world” and address the “wicked problems” we face as a society.