NEH Chair Adams kicks off Creative Matters lecture series
William D. Adams, Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, visited the University of Iowa campus Aug. 27-28, 2015 to deliver the first lecture in the Creative Matters series sponsored by the UI Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development. Below are stories, text, video, photos, and other materials chronicling and related to the visit.
For William D. Adams, witnessing the Vietnam War up close as an infantry adviser raised fundamental questions that have shaped his career as a philosopher, teacher, college president, and currently as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Fifty Years in the Life
—Remarks by Ed Folsom
The year I graduated from high school, 1965, the NEH and NEA were first established. I was at the time oblivious to the Rose Garden ceremony, where Lyndon Johnson signed into law the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, and where Langston Hughes and Ansel Adams and so many others gathered to witness the signing, writers and artists who would become so vital to my intellectual and affective life in the decades to come.
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My public school education had been to that point very much a response to what was in effect the 1950s version of what we’ve experienced in recent years as the STEM push. I was ten years old when the Soviet launch of Sputnik shocked the U.S. and led to what then was called the “space race,” and from age 10 on, my education was re-focused on science, with newly designed biology, chemistry, and physics classes: I spent a good part of my senior year in high school in what was called “Science Seminar,” an open state-of-the-art lab for twelve seniors who been designated the most promising science students at my brand new high school, nicknamed the “space age” school, even though its real name was Valley Forge High School, even though we were nowhere near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, but rather tucked away in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. We were the Valley Forge Patriots, and most of us, I recall, did feel at least a little patriotic as we embraced the new acronyms that defined us: CBA Chemistry, PSSC Physics. American education, then as now, had been deemed ineffective and in need of chemical, physical, and technological infusions: our schools were like Washington’s troops at Valley Forge during that long grueling death-ridden winter of 1777, defeated and depressed and ill-supplied, but we were coming out of the torpor now, and I left high school imagining myself part of General Washington’s toughened and resurgent troops, marching triumphantly to re-take Philadelphia . . . or the Soviet Union . . . or whatever: history, after all, wasn’t that important anymore. By the time I graduated from college, in 1969, the space race was won. A month or so after graduation, I peered up into the clear summer sky in Cleveland, Ohio, and imagined the Apollo astronauts—and especially my fellow Ohioan Neil Armstrong—touching down on that full, reddish, late-July moon.
But by that time, I was far more interested in the poetry of the event, its drama and what it told us about ourselves and our culture, than the physics and engineering and technology that made it possible. Stirred to my core by a couple of literature courses I took taught by inspired and inspiring professors, I had changed my major from pre-med to English at the end of my sophomore year in college. And, while I was still oblivious to the existence of the NEH, I was now much more aware of the importance of what I then and still today uncomfortably think of as “the humanities.” I hadn’t at that time heard the Senate testimony of the then-director of the Atomic Energy Commission, who spoke eloquently in favor of the establishment of the NEH, but I had heard many others making similar arguments, then as today: what he (his name was Glenn Seaborg) said, back in the 60s, was: “We cannot afford to drift physically, morally, or esthetically in a world in which the current moves so rapidly perhaps toward an abyss. Science and technology are providing us with the means to travel swiftly. But what course do we take? This is the question that no computer can answer.”
Those 1960s computers were big, clunky, weak machines, and they in fact couldn’t answer much. The humanities are still concerned with the course or courses we’re taking through ever trickier currents generated in part by ever sleeker and smarter machines, and no one back in 1965 imagined how vital computers would become for the newly established National Endowment for the Humanities and for the research of the scholars it would support. In 1965, few humanities scholars had much use for computers; now, of course, we all do. And now the Office of Digital Humanities is one of the key components of NEH, and one big thing we’ve learned in the past fifty years is that the important thing is not the questions that computers can answer, it’s which questions we ask ever more powerful computers to help us narrate tentative answers. That’s the very nature of the humanities—asking the irritating, uncomfortable questions that the data (no matter how good or how vast) still can’t quite cope with. Despite its acronym, the NEH is really the National Endowment for the Vital Unanswerable Questions—an endowment that keeps the weird asking alive, that keeps encouraging ever more troubling and ever more necessary and ever more complex questions, and in that way keeps us human.
My first NEH grant was in 1984, when I directed an NEH summer seminar for high school teachers. That was over 30 years ago, but it was only a week ago that I heard, as I still often do, from one of those teachers, now retired, who just published his sixth post-retirement novel, three of them nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe award, a burst of writing energy that he credits that long-ago NEH seminar for unleashing. Since that first grant, I’ve had the good fortune to be Principal Investigator or Co-PI on five other NEH grants, including a current one that is helping to fund the online Walt Whitman Archive’s exploration of the origins of Whitman’s writing career—the journalism and fiction and poetry and notebook jottings that led to, precipitated, one of the most important and discussed and responded-to texts in American literature, Leaves of Grass. On the Whitman Archive, we are asking lots of questions computers can’t answer, but we are discovering every day ways that computers can help writers and scholars and students and alert and alive readers ask their endless lists of ultimately unanswerable but always illuminating questions about Whitman’s work and what it means for poetry and democracy and a democratic imagination, what it means for understanding the messy American history of racial discord and class inequities, what it means for understanding how culture-defining and culture-altering work gets written.
I wish I had here tonight with me the hundred-plus graduate student who have worked on the Whitman Archive project here at Iowa and at the University of Nebraska, and Virginia, Duke, William and Mary, Texas, Southern Illinois, and elsewhere—grad students who have gone off to a variety of careers as professors, librarians, digital humanities specialists, publishers, and writers, who all were supported by the NEH and became who they are in significant part because of the opportunity NEH gave them. Too often, we focus on the people like me who are “awarded” these grants, but the NEH is less an endowment—the bestower of a dowry—than it is an endless humanities start-up fund. Every NEH grant demands that institutions invest fully in the projects the NEH has invested in, and the money funds collaborative work that creates and nurtures new generations of tough questioners, that turns students into research partners and, as a result, turns professors into students again. It’s impossible to trace just how wide the NEH ripple effect is: I wish I had here tonight just one month’s worth of users of the Whitman Archive nationwide and worldwide to demonstrate one aspect of the NEH ripple, but we’d need to move to Kinnick Stadium for that to happen, since over 30,000 access the Archive every month, with spikes some months to more than 40,000. And we are just one project among an array of projects that make NEH something more like a constellation than an agency.
Its work surrounds us, and, here at Iowa, that is particularly true, since it has generated a cascade of projects that grew out of NEH-funded initiatives—from the University of Iowa Press’s Whitman Series, the most extended series of book-length studies of Whitman’s work and its influence; to the journal of record for Whitman studies, the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, about to go open access to make itself freely available to anyone in the world; to the growing collection of Whitman materials in our Special Collections, where private collectors have decided that Iowa is the place that values Whitman; to the university’s first MOOC, “Every Atom,” an open online course devoted to “Song of Myself” and enrolling over 2000 students worldwide; to the International Writing Program’s “Whitman Web,” making available “Song of Myself” in a growing number of languages (currently eighteen, including Arabic and Persian). All of this is one small example of the less visible side of the NEH at work, the ways its grants start up activity that grows in unpredictable and rhizomatic ways.
It would be nice to imagine another Rose Garden ceremony and another president signing into law a reaffirmation of the importance of the Humanities and the Arts, a reaffirmation made all the more urgent by the new push for STEM. Just as the visionaries in the 1960s understood when scientists gave their support for the new endowments for the humanities and arts, the push for STEM is in a very real way only valuable if we push all the harder on the humanities and the arts to keep raising the crucial unanswerable questions that always keep emerging—probing to find what needs to be asked as we head ever deeper into a world where computers no longer answer questions so much as are the question: where does the human end and the technological begin; when we endow the human with so much technology, we need, more than ever, a strong—an even stronger—National Endowment for the Humanities.
Photos by Justin Torner, UI Office of Strategic Communication.
Creative Matters is an initiative of the UI Arts Advancement Committee and is sponsored by the UI Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development.
Six speakers have been confirmed so far, and detailed information is available online at http://creativematters.research.uiowa.edu
All events are free and open to the public.
The Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development provides resources and support to researchers and scholars at the University of Iowa and to businesses across Iowa with the goal of forging new frontiers of discovery and innovation and promoting a culture of creativity that benefits the campus, the state, and the world.