Breaking Down the Barriers: A Case for Academic-Public Collaboration

Guest Contributor: Barbara E. Will, A. and R. Newbury Professor, Associate Dean of Arts & Humanities, Dartmouth College

It’s the middle of another academic year, which means dwindling enrollments and an ever-smaller roster of majors sitting in many Humanities classes at colleges and universities across the country.  Undergraduates seem to be voting with their feet in choosing majors perceived as more practical—for example in the STEM disciplines, business, or pre-health fields—over majors in the Humanities, despite a plethora of data suggesting that college majors matter little in terms of job prospects.

At the same time, in the state in which I live, people of all ages, backgrounds, and interests are crowding into libraries, meeting halls, high school gymnasiums, and even bars to hear Humanities experts lead discussions on topics ranging from the ethics of artificial intelligence to fake news to the experience of veterans across human history.  In the past year, our state Humanities council has seen participation in its programming grow exponentially, and has engaged with dozens of new community organizations.  Several weeks ago, I attended the council’s annual dinner, a sparkling networking event attended by more than 600 business and community leaders across our state, from entrepreneurs, lawyers, and doctors to secondary-school teachers and administrators to the governor himself.

Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., funding for the office that supports our state Humanities councils—the National Endowment for the Humanities—has actually gone up since Donald Trump took office.  This, despite three years of White House pressure to completely defund both the NEH and the NEA.  And national surveys also tell an interesting story about public hunger for the kinds of skills acquired by studying the Humanities.  While trust in democracy and public institutions appears to be at an all-time low, and while public discussion and debate is increasingly polarized, a majority of Americans seem to crave more respectful, more informed, and less heated civic conversations around pressing contemporary social, political, economic, and environmental concerns.  The skills that would enable such conversations—critical thinking, rhetorical persuasion, and imaginative identification with others—are at the core of what we teach and write about in the Humanities.

The fact that broad public interest in history, literature, ethics, art, and the power of ideas has never been higher should hearten academic humanists, despite the worrisome fact that our students are choosing to leave themselves out of the conversation.  While I have been involved in efforts on my campus to recapture student interest in the Humanities, I have also, during my five years as an academic administrator, recognized that we must work strategically with allies beyond the walls of the university to promote the value of what we do.   We have nothing to lose in this effort—and a great deal to gain.

Three years ago, I met with the then-executive director of New Hampshire Humanities to plan an annual networking meeting for arts and humanities leaders across the state, from museum directors to academic deans to the director of our Black Heritage history organization.  The goal was simple: to celebrate the many ways in which the Humanities enrich our regional community and to forge partnerships across institutional lines.  With growing participation every year, this year the event will be hosted by a local community college under the title “Doing the Humanities: How Communities Benefit.”  Beyond the tangible benefits of sharing insights and ideas, the Humanities Networking Day has also spawned initiatives and collaborations, from a panel discussion with NEH Chairman Jon Parrish Peede on the Public Humanities in Rural America to a symposium on race and sites of memory hosted by a local library.  And it has offered a rare professional opportunity for academic humanists to learn from colleagues across a variety of state institutions about Humanities success stories.

I have also been part of a partnership between university colleagues and local schools and nonprofits to create a space on our campus where people from across our community—from high school students to veterans—can come together for thoughtful discussion and debate regardless of education level, background, or political orientation.  The Humanities Commons for Civic Engagement at Dartmouth College seeks to promote activities that bring humanistic values of responsible, respectful dialogue to the public, joining faculty, students, and community members in a mutual exploration of the civic issues central to contemporary life.  Inspired by the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who gave a speech on the Dartmouth Campus in 1962 titled “Towards Freedom,” the Humanities Commons for Civic Engagement aims to serve as a vibrant venue committed to exploring, with our neighbors here in Northern New England, just what it means to combine intellect and character at a time when our country is in such need of that powerful combination.

Engaging in broad-based community initiatives around the Humanities allows academic humanists to capture and cultivate adult interest in topics that matter deeply to us, and foregrounds the centrality of our skills and knowledge to understanding and addressing pressing issues of the moment.  In the wake of our students’ current primary concerns about vocation, we need allies who can help make the case for why the Humanities matter more than ever in the twenty-first century.  In fact, those allies are everywhere around us, waiting for the university walls to come tumbling down.