In recent years, public humanities programs have popped up across the country at an unprecedented rate. Several universities across the U.S.—including Brown, Yale, and NYU—now offer graduate degrees in the public humanities, and in 2016, the National Endowment for the Humanities even launched a new grant program to fund public humanities projects.
Without a doubt, “public humanities” has become the next big buzzword in the realm of humanities scholarship. At its most basic, the term refers to humanities-related programming directed at broad public audiences, rather than specialized academic ones.
Take, for instance, Indiana’s statewide celebration of the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Indiana Humanities, the state’s leader in promoting public engagement with the humanities, has organized dozens of Frankenstein-related events, including community reads, a weekend retreat, a gathering of sci-fi and horror writers, and even Indiana’s very own “Frankenfest”.
Closer to home, IU’s own Arts and Humanities Council regularly brings together research and creative activity at its First Thursdays Festivals and at other events in the IU-Bloomington community. The Council’s upcoming Kurt Vonnegut festival prides itself on its rather eclectic combination of events: “part symposium, part exhibit, part performance, part music…and a celebration of all things Vonnegut.”
As such a description captures, public humanities programs encompass a whole smorgasbord of programs and presentation styles. There is, in fact, little consensus as to what constitutes the category of the public humanities. Public humanities programming can include exhibits, performances, workshops, festivals, community discussions, lectures directed at public audiences—or really anything that brings people together under a common appreciation for the humanities.
What unites these seemingly disparate efforts is their shared goal of translating scholarly research into a format that is both comprehensible and engaging for non-specialists who may not typically seek out academic insights in the humanities. To a degree, scholars in all disciplines should strive to make technical research make sense to people outside of their field. Yet, there is a particular pressure in the humanities to reach public audiences—in part, due to the political origins of federal support for the humanities.
As public historian Jamil Zainaldin traces, in a 1973 reauthorization of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Congress directed that the NEH pay “particular attention to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.” The trickle-down effect of this directive prompted a gradual policy shift in favor of public programming. By 1980, the NEH’s budget for public programming had reached 50% of the agency’s total budget.
According to Zainaldin, the creation of these programs reflects “a late twentieth-century faith and confidence in the power of humanities-based dialogue to create just and informed civil societies.” In other words, the public humanities find their ideological roots in the simple idea that the humanities are a good point for starting conversations.
Federal support for public humanities programs has certainly shifted the conversation about the relationship between humanities research and the public. While museum displays, library discussion groups, and public lectures are in no way new, late 20th-century dialogues about the public role of the humanities inaugurated new proposals for a grassroots movement in favor of the humanities.
Kenneth R.R. Gros Louis, former Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at IU, was a particularly outspoken advocate of democratizing the humanities. In one speech he made regarding the reauthorization of the NEH in 1980, Gros Louis spoke about the artificial divide between academic studies in the humanities and the general public: “Unlike the sciences, [the humanities] belong in a real sense to everyone; yet the tendency in academic disciplines is to devise means to make this less true. Humanities are becoming something one does in school, not in ‘real’ life.”
As exemplified in Gros Louis’ statement, the rise of the public humanities has led academics to question the current inaccessibility of humanities research. As in other disciplines, scholarship in the humanities tends to be tucked away in academic journals and replete with technical terminology and theoretical concepts. Even if the general topic—be it a novel, a historical event, or a piece of pop culture—might be of broad public interest, the general public typically cannot access it.
More recently, this trend toward promoting the public humanities has also served as a response to political challenges to the value of the humanities and threats to public funding for the arts and humanities. The public humanities represent one primary means of demonstrating what scholarly work in the humanistic disciplines contributes to society at large.
Whether public humanities programs will indeed be the salvation of the humanities in U.S. politics and culture remains to be seen. But, in any case, recent innovations in the public humanities represent a bold and creative model for rendering scholarly research accessible to interested audiences outside of the academy.
Gros Louis, Kenneth R.R. Statement on the Reauthorization of the NEH, Presented to the Subcommittee on Post-Secondary Education of the House of Representatives, 2 April 1980. Kenneth R.R. Gros Louis speeches, Collection C220, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington.
Zainaldin, Jamil. “Public Works: NEH, Congress, and the State Humanities Councils.” The Public Historian, 35, no. 1 (2013): 28-50.