by Robert Collén

Robert CollenIt is said that all true beginnings are obscured in myth. So let it be with the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities & Public Policy, as it was called at the creation. I arrived in 1976, which was the eighth day, as it were. It was still, however, a time of titanic effort. Most of the hard work fell on the small staff. They had to recruit and work closely with potential grant applicants. Their charge was to put before the board members a steady flow of interesting proposals that combined the humanities (often confused with humanitarianism) and public policy (often confused with advocacy).

The members perpetually debated the question of what constituted public policy. I recall one discussion, carried on in our usual free-for-all manner, that produced the notion that something became a public policy issue when enough people decided it was. To our credit, we never settled on a firm definition.

We always worried about advocacy. The people who came with proposals had a point of view. It is inconceivable that they would not, but when does a point of view become advocacy? Some members thought advocacy could not be avoided. Nevertheless, because of our vigilance, we were able to avoid the worst traps.

As time went on, we agonized over funding too many films, yet our first Foundation-initiated project was a film about Shays’s Rebellion. A Little Rebellion Now and Then was produced by Calliope Film Resources of Somerville to help commemorate the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. It has been one of the most popular items in the Foundation’s lending library.

“Doing Justice” was arguably the most successful program of the first decade. A project of Brandeis University, it involved bringing judges together to discuss a book or short story in relation to their experiences on the bench. “Doing Justice” not only had a long run, but also served as a model for similar programs elsewhere in Massachusetts and throughout the nation.

The practice of the public humanities is indeed a noble enterprise, because informed public discussion on important matters is essential to the defense of freedom. Yet we now live in an age when the image has pre-eminence over the written and spoken word. Is this a public policy issue we ought to be concerned about?

Robert P. Collen retired in 1994 from the Rodney Hunt Company in Orange, MA, after more than 38 years with the firm. He served on the Foundation board from 1976 to 1984 and as Chairman from 1980 to 1982. He also served on the board of the Federation of State Humanities Councils from 1982 to 1985.

©2003 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Fall 2003