Reflections on Mass Humanities' 40th Anniversary Year

by David Tebaldi

David TebaldiWhen people ask me how long I have been Executive Director of Mass Humanities, my reply is often met with mild astonishment. It is rare anymore for someone to stay in the same position with the same organization for 29 years. The 40th anniversary of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities seems like an appropriate occasion to explain why I feel so privileged to have led this organization for nearly three decades.

Having been professionally trained in the humanities—disciplines, let's be honest, that are too often written off as useless and get little respect in the world at large— it does me good to devote my professional life to demonstrating the crucial role that the humanities play both in personal development and in community life. There are of course many different ways of doing this, but none more effective or personally rewarding as working in the public humanities.

What is unique about the state humanities councils is that they do this through an unusual process of collaboration—face-to-face encounters—between the academy and the practical world from which both benefit greatly. Our boards themselves are such collaborations, consisting as they do of roughly equal numbers of scholars and members of the public broadly representative of each state's diversity. Every program we offer and every humanities project we support through our grants bring scholars and community leaders together to deepen our understanding of issues that matter to us, as individuals and as members of our communities. We bring the life of the mind to the turmoil of life.

This work is always interesting and informative. At times it can be revelatory and exhilarating. Yes, sometimes I feel a little like Moses, 40 years wandering in the desert in search of the Promised Land. My "desert" is a social, political and cultural environment hostile to the humanities, one in which economic values reign supreme, crass commercialism dominates our culture, and self-regard takes precedence over the common good.

My "Promised Land" is a robust public square where history, literature, philosophy, and the other humanities disciplines are valued by all—but especially by our political leaders—both for themselves and for their ability to illuminate our common concerns and help us imagine a better world. It is a place where political disagreements are resolved through thoughtful reflection and reasoned discussion, where ideas are more important than ideology. It is a place where the complexity and nuance that characterize almost every aspect of human relations are understood and appreciated.

Needless to say, we are not there yet, but we are a lot closer to the Promised Land (here in Massachusetts at least) than when we set out in 1974 on what one of our long ago board chairs—a motorcycle riding, poetry-writing Republican business executive from Orange—called "this noble enterprise."

I'm often asked by those same people who re curious about my tenure, of the hundreds of projects Mass Humanities has supported or conducted, which is your favorite? This is kind of annoying–like being asked to name your favorite book. There are too many wonderful possibilities to choose a favorite. But here are a few projects that have meant a lot to me and helped advance the mission of Mass Humanities in significant, and significantly different, ways:

SHIFTING GEARS: The Changing Meaning of Work in Massachusetts, 1920-1980 was our first attempt to have a state-wide impact with a single project. Working with the state Department of Environmental Management (as it was then called), we placed scholars in residence in six of the Commonwealth's Heritage State Parks (in Holyoke, North Adams, Gardner, Lawrence, Fall River, and the Blackstone Valley) to lead groups of local residents in explorations of the changes in the local economies over time and how those changes affected each community's understanding of itself. It was an ambitious and largely successful two-year undertaking and one that quite literally put the foundation on the map in Massachusetts.

The State House Women's Leadership Project deserves special mention not only because of the quality of its concept and execution, but also because of its permanence. At the request of the state senate, Mass Humanities took responsibility for funding and overseeing a longoverdue effort to commemorate the contributions of women to public life in the Commonwealth. The stunning result was HEAR US, an elegant and eloquent work of art permanently installed in the State House in 1999. The large-scale sculptures executed in marble and bronze memorialize the contributions of six women (Dorothea Dix, Lucy Stone, Sarah Parker Remond, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Mary Kenney O'Sullivan and Florence Luscombe) and the effects of their life's work on the laws of the Commonwealth. Even the very best humanities programs tend to be ephemeral. They live on, when they do, only in archives or in the memories of those who experienced them first-hand. HEAR US is forever.

Mass Moments, our electronic archive of Massachusetts history, was groundbreaking (at least for state humanities councils) when it was launched in our 30th anniversary year–combining a rich and engaging website, email delivery of each day's moment available by (free) subscription, and an associated series of one-minute radio spots aired daily on stations across the Commonwealth. An unexpected bonus has been the use to which the original research and outstanding writing done for Mass Moments has been used (and cited) by historians, writers and classroom teachers.

The Clemente Course in the Humanities, of course. Readers of this newsletter know it well. A remarkable collaboration between Mass Humanities, local social service agencies, and area colleges and universities, the Clemente Course provides college-level humanities classes in five subject areas free of charge to low-income adults. Established first in Holyoke in 1999, the program has also been offered in Boston, New Bedford, Worcester and, beginning this fall, in Brockton. Nothing Mass Humanities does has a more profound or lasting impact on the lives of individuals than Clemente.

Finally, a quick mention of our annual fall symposium—as we mark its anniversary in this its tenth year—in which we bring a group of prominent scholars and practitioners together to critically examine some fundamental aspect of our democracy or the interplay between our democracy and other important social or cultural institutions. Generously hosted by Boston College, the symposium now has a devoted following of nearly 400 intellectually curious and politically engaged adults. Better than any of our other programs perhaps, the symposium fulfills the mandate given to the state humanities councils by Congress when they were created in the early 1970s: to demonstrate the relevance of the humanities to the contemporary concerns of our national life.

It was a different Congress in 1974. Unlike Moses and the Israelites, we have not been cast out although we could be if the current House Republicans on the Interior and Environment Appropriations Committee have their way. They have proposed 49% cuts for the NEH and the NEA for 2014. No other federal agencies have been singled out in this way. And the effect of such a reduction on the federal budget deficit would be insignificant to say the least. Clearly this is not about the money. What is it about?