Above & Beyond

Talk of a crisis in the humanities spins a woeful web about our chosen field, and the headlines have us caught between plunging budgets and sagging numbers of students majoring in the humanities. Some numbers, though, are going up, including our age—Mass Humanities marks its 40th anniversary in 2014—and to celebrate, we reviewed our four decade history. It is remarkable the extent to which the grants we made and programs we ran have indisputably enhanced and improved civic life in the Commonwealth.

Since our inception in 1974, Mass Humanities has emphasized the public value of the humanities. Two decades into our mission, the editorial in the newsletter that celebrated our 20th anniversary remarked that the careful balance of commitment, collaboration, and community were the “wellsprings of our program”—and indeed, they are still. What we found in our history illuminates the strengths of the humanities, showing that no matter the challenges, we can meet and exceed expectations.

Today, the focus is largely on job creation and career preparation, evinced by opinion pieces and editorials in numerous media outlets that emphasize these as the most salient criteria for evaluating our work. The American Academy of Arts & Sciences recently issued a much-discussed report entitled The Heart of the Matter that outlines a plan for the humanities to take a central role in improving the nation. The report sets long-term goals for achieving economic well-being and strengthening civil society and its core rubric for success is meeting future workforce needs. The report is indicative of a trend among humanities scholars who increasingly recognize the value of public engagement. Scholars glean lessons from outside the academy and equip students of all stripes with the tools they need to establish, maintain, and succeed in their careers.

Our programs have prepared participants for further learning and career advancement. The Clemente Course in the Humanities has awarded college credit to more than 400 low-income adults in the last 14 years. The majority—77%—go on to higher education, access to which has been made easier by their participation in our program, and 92% report that their life goals have been furthered. The Clemente course brings renewed passion and a way forward to underserved communities, rewarding students in the process with professional skills like project management, collaboration, and communication.

More than 800 participants in our workplace program Literature & Medicine know the value of ongoing career education. For the past ten of our forty years, hospital workers and volunteers alike have read and discussed literary works that help them reflect on their vocations as medical practitioners. The scholar-led conversations that occur at these sessions result in improved interpersonal relations with patients and colleagues, according to 64% of respondents, and 62% went on to say the program has increased their job satisfaction.

Of course, the true value of the humanities does not lie in quantitative analyses of workforce preparedness. Rather it derives from their ability to inform and enlighten our individual and collective choices, so at the same time that we celebrate the humanities quantitatively, we need also do what the tradition calls on us to do and describe their value qualitatively. The humanities ensure not only that suitable candidates enter the workforce, but that the full spectrum of learning is available to all. We advocate on behalf of the humanities because curiosity is not quantifiable; the value of humanistic inquiry—not unlike the value of basic scientific research stands apart from metrics. Just as scientific inquiry provides a deeper understanding of the physical universe, humanistic inquiry provides a more profound understanding of ourselves.

For decades, we have known that focusing on public issues is the best way to connect with the people of Massachusetts. The significant work being done by our grantees and collaborators receives our attention and support because it reflects and strengthens our state and national ideals. These same principles are explored each year in our public symposium, celebrating its tenth anniversary this fall. Scholars and journalists join public officials and citizens in exploring issues that are both timely and of enduring importance to our democracy and the conversations that take place at the symposium encourage and inform civic engagement.

This combination of humanities scholarship with an engaging and accessible format also characterizes our grant program, of course, which has served virtually every municipality in the state in our 40 years. We have made a renewed effort recently to extend our grant program's reach. Those project proposals that can engage new audiences with historically limited access to the humanities receive special consideration. We have also allocated additional grant dollars to such programming and since it began, the Engaging New audiences initiative has been continuously successful and growing. To date, Mass Humanities has funded projects engaging veterans through community conversations, urban youth through poetry and storytelling, and immigrant populations through oral histories, to name only a select few.

None of this would be possible, of course, without the generous contributions of time, talent and money from board members and friends, project scholars, project scholars and members of the general public who attend and value our programs. We are profoundly grateful for their, for your support. And we owe a special debt of gratitude to the National Endowment for the Humanities for its support, both over the decades and particularly now, as we connect with those who have limited access to the humanities. Indeed, our ongoing Inspire campaign to endow the Fund for New Communities has been boosted by a prestigious Challenge Grant from the NEH. Our objective for Inspire is to raise $3 million in order to further our capacity to share the humanities with those same communities served by the Clemente program and the Engaging New Audiences initiative. Already we have raised over $1 million, and meeting our goal would mean we could enhance both of those programs, expanding the Clemente Course and transforming more lives with the power of the humanities.

At 40, we have a long track record of successfully inspiring audiences across the state and we hope that you will join us in ensuring that this important work continues for years to come.

Published in Mass Humanities Fall 2013 Newsletter Issue (pdf).