Vivian Vazquez / Sun Staff Photographer

William D. Adams speaks to students about the value of the humanities

February 24, 2016

Endowment Chairman Praises Humanities at Cornell

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“We are literally drowning in issues that have fundamental philosophical significance and are swirling around us all day, every day,” said William D. Adams, chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities. “I think we would all be helped if we had recourse to some of those philosophical discussions which could take place.”

Addressing the audience in Klarman Hall, Adams argued for the value and importance of the humanities in addressing important modern philosophical issues.

Adams also spoke extensively about the history of the NEH, from its founding in 1965 to its 50th anniversary and recent efforts in promoting the digital humanities.

“There was in the country [at that time], and certainly in the Johnson administration … a notion that the United States had to be great … specifically in its commitment to culture, cultural life, and legacy,” Adams said.

NEH’s most recent projects include grants for people revolutionizing graduate humanities programs, efforts to integrate with STEM fields and funding towards digital humanities.

“The humanities [have] started getting interested in a much different and broader sense of culture — culture not as the refined or repository, but the culture in which we live in and in which we live by,” Adams said.

Approximately $150 million is donated in grants to the humanities every year, according to Adams. NEH has given a total of $25 million to Cornell and approximately $5.3 billion in total since its founding.

Over the years, NEH has changed from a research-oriented organization to a public outreach organization, Adams said. It has also had to adapt to a changing perception of the humanities from canonical and classical to a mixture of both highbrow and commonplace culture.

“I think we need to re-engage the public realm and we need to speak in more publically-accessible ways,” he said. “I think we need to speak to it not just in our private words [as academics] but I think we have to speak to it in our research and in our curriculum.”

Adams’ suggestions for the the evolution of humanities involves a more balanced secondary education curriculum between STEM and humanities, less intra-disciplinary differentiation in both undergraduate and graduate humanities programs and more interdisciplinary interactions between the humanities and STEM subjects.

“We have to think again about the meaning of liberal learning,” Adams said. “That requires — I think — a fundamentally new and different discussion [about] educating people on the ‘conduct of life’ which includes many things outside of vocation and professional life.”
Adams also recommended that graduate programs in the humanities broaden their base to include students of varying interests.

“We’re trying to encourage graduate programs to think differently about the future of their graduate students in the humanities,” he said. “We’re also seeking to help communities that have not been well-represented in the NEH’s grantmaking… in the past.”