Former NEH Chair: For the Humanities, Innovation 'The Order of the Day'

Former National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman William 'Bro' Adams will speak at Duke October 2

William 'Bro' Adams, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, will speak at Duke October 2.

William D. “Bro” Adams has examined the humanities from many angles.

A scholar of political theory and philosophy, Adams was president of both Bucknell University and Colby College before becoming chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2014.

He left that role in May and is now a senior fellow at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the nonprofit that has funded many Duke humanities projects including the Humanities Writ Large initiative.

Adams, who will visit Duke and give a public talk at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 2, at the Nasher Museum of Art, spoke with Duke Today recently. Here are excerpts:

A question you must be asked often: Are these difficult times for the academic humanities?

The academic humanities are facing a number of pressures in many institutions, and particularly declines in the numbers of humanities majors and, in some cases, enrollments in humanities courses. These pressures can be attributed to a number of things—the severe recession of 2008-09, the relatively poor job market for recent college graduates, student and parent anxiety about jobs, the (unfounded) perception that the humanities do not prepare people for work, and the accompanying perception -- sometimes also unfounded -- that enrollment in the sciences and professional programs brightens career prospects.

These factors and pressures have led, in numbers of instances, to reduced institutional resources for humanities departments and faculties, especially where budgeting follows a strict headcount regime. 

In most cases I am familiar with, the movement of students and resources has been away from the humanities generally and toward the social sciences—economics especially—and the natural sciences, as well as pre-professional programs like engineering and business. But most of these changes can be traced to challenges coming from outside the humanistic disciplines strictly speaking—from the economy and public sentiment formed in reaction to economic changes and challenges.

You don’t accept the notion that the humanities are in a sort of existential crisis. Why?

I don’t like talking about the language of crisis very much. I like talking about how we innovate and explore these new futures, which I think people at Duke and other places are doing in interesting ways.

What are smart changes universities are making on the humanities front?

There’s a pretty obvious dynamic of change in the academic humanities. It has to do with interdisciplinary trends, integration with science and technology, and it has to do with a new way of thinking in the humanities curriculums. There is a lot of innovation happening, some due to pressures, some not, but it’s all good.

Innovation and experimentation is the order of the day. Some of these innovative programs cause traditionalists in the humanities to be concerned, but the curriculum in the humanities is not a single, stable thing over time. It’s always been changing pretty constantly. These changes are part of a rather natural dynamic.

Should humanities scholars be embracing the role of the public intellectual?

Yes. I think it speaks to this question of the relevance of the humanities. It also demonstrates how the humanities connect important programs in society and life.

It doesn’t mean there isn’t also a place for more traditional preoccupations in the humanities. I think it’s a good thing scholars are reaching out and speaking to the public in more accessible ways.

Teaching graduate students to speak to the public in a clear and compelling way is quite important. It demonstrates the relevance of the humanities and demonstrates the power of the humanities to clarify things we all care about.

Did your experience with NEH lead you to view the humanities in a different way?

It did. Through NEH and how it works and the organizations it funds, I developed a much deeper appreciation for the public humanities, those cultural centers, historic sites, libraries, museums, that whole world beyond the academy where humanities work is being done, but in a very different way.

I was very impressed by that world and encouraged by it and I learned a lot about it. It’s big, but it’s also extensive. You go to some of these out-of-the-way places, you find cultural centers that aren’t part of a metropolitan area but they’re important to the people who live there. They represent a sort of cultural self-awareness and cultural identity that’s important.