by Ellen S. Dunlap

For this series of 30th anniversary essays, David Tebaldi asked me to try my hand at describing “an ideal future shaped by the public humanities.” This is a tall order for someone who has spent her career focused on the past, but the assignment intrigued me even more than it terrified me, so I agreed. In my mind I sketched visions of communities built by individuals whose lives had not merely been enriched but truly transformed by their engagement with the humanities.

Through the study of history, literature, languages, ethics, philosophy, as well as our religious traditions and system of laws, the citizens in my ideal world are bound into a democratic society by mutual respect, civility, understanding, and trust. The choices they make about how best to live their own lives are informed by an awareness that the dilemmas and challenges they face have been confronted countless times by others, and this appreciation of the human condition ennobles and empowers them. In my ideal world, everyone works hard to make things better for each other including those with whom they may have profound cultural differences. It is a world where words and ideas are celebrated, where civil dialogue is prized, where knowledge is revered and widely pursued.

Breaking news on the television interrupts my “visioning” and reminds me how far from ideal our present world is, and I am left to wonder what steps the Foundation can take to move us closer to that idyllic goal. What can we do to bring the stories and lessons of our shared human experience to bear on the everyday lives of our fellow man? How do we impart the wisdom of the ages to those who shape our world today by the decisions they make and the choices they give us?

It strikes me as imperative that we continue to fight the stereotype that history, literature, and philosophy are nothing more than boring classes and dusty books. We have never done this better, in my opinion, than we are doing now with our Clemente Course in the Humanities, which brings these subjects alive for students with a hunger for them, a hunger fed in part by the educational and economic disadvantages which they have faced. The humanities unlock doors of possibility for them and give them opportunity to reflect upon their own lives and choices they can make to improve them. As we gain the resources to expand the program and, by our example, encourage other states to establish Clemente programs, we are changing the world, one life at a time, and witnessing the transformative power of the humanities at their best.

Ellen S. Dunlap is President of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, a national research library of American history. She was elected to the board in 1996 and has served as chair since 2002.

©2003 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Fall 2003