William Adams

While many in Washington, D.C., are chiefly concerned with making America more secure or more profitable, William “Bro” Adams has been tasked with the distinct duty of making our country more humane.

A two-time college president and Vietnam War vet, the Michigan-born Adams was appointed last year by President Obama as the Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Now, Adams is spearheading The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square, an NEH initiative funding community-based projects rooted in literature, philosophy, history, and art.

Adams will advocate for the humanities this Thursday as the keynote speaker for the Santa Barbara Education Foundation’s HOPE Awards honoring Jim Kearns, founder of the Incredible Children’s Art Network (iCAN), and honorees Village Properties and The Garden Club.

The Santa Barbara Independent spoke with Adams about education, growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, and leading new directions in the humanities.

So you’ve been the NEH chairperson now for the better part of the year. How’s the job going? I think it’s going well. It’s extremely interesting, very stimulating. I’ve especially enjoyed meeting the people involved with us around the country in various places; and I also enjoy the grant-making process, which is the core of what we do. It’s been a very good nine months. Things are going well.

How does it compare with your past positions as college president at Bucknell University and Colby College? Well, I’d say it’s more consistently interesting and stimulating. That’s a pretty high bar, since being a college president is very interesting and stimulating, but this is more consistently about intellectual matters that I care about. There’s less pressure of a certain kind; when you’re president of a college, you’ve got responsibilities that include caring about and worrying about the behavior of thousands of 18-22-year-olds. This is a little bit different. I work with a much smaller group of professionals who are very dedicated and very focused, so it’s a different kind of pressure.

So tell me a bit about The Common Good. How far along are you guys in processing applications for that? Well, there are various parts of it. The Common Good: Humanity in the Public Square is the broad framework for a group of grant-making programs. The one that’s furthest along within that is the Public Scholars Program, which is an effort to attract both academic and independent humanities scholars to the possibility of publishing work that’s more accessible to the public. That program was the first out of the gate, and we’re going to be reviewing applications and taking them to our national council for review early- to midsummer.

There are other parts of the program that aren’t quite as far along, but one that is also reasonably far along is the Standing Together Initiative, which is about both the legacy of war and conflict in the U.S. and also about veterans. We started that work a little bit before I came, and we’re well down the road in funding projects that are directed particularly to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan wars. That work is continuing, and it’s going very well.

And that involves helping veterans transition from war to academic life? Not just academic life, more broadly civilian life. There is one program we’re supporting, which is the Warrior Scholar Project, which does help veterans matriculating at four-year institutions. We’re funding programs on 11 college campuses, including one at University of Southern California. Those summer programs are very intensive programs for not just academic life, but many other expressions of civilian life.

And were you, with your military experience, instrumental in informing this initiative. Did you propose the idea, or just happen to be there at the right time? I didn’t propose the idea. It was proposed a little before in the spring just before I got here, but it was certainly attractive to me as a veteran, and it’s certainly going to be a large part of my role here.

Any specific projects you could speak about with this initiative or others within the Common Good funding? Oh, yeah, absolutely. In addition to Standing Together, there are a number of other programs that we expect to fund within the Common Good. One of them has to do with what I call “grand challenges” that the country is facing. For example, I was reading the other day a statement made by a group of scientists who are concerned about the evolution of biomedical engineering. There was a piece in the New York Times about a group of genetic and biomedical scientists who have called for a pause in the evolution of a certain new technology in biomedical engineering.

The pause is to create a public conversation around appropriate uses of that. This kind of conversation must involve humanists, particularly philosophers and ethical thinkers, who can help us all understand the moral and ethical tradeoffs that we face in this kind of world. Another challenge that’s very interesting to me is the way in which information technology has established a challenge with respect to the appropriate balance between liberty and security. There’s been a lot of attention to this in the press recently. All of these new technologies create capacities that intrude upon privacy in ways that are extremely worrisome, and a public discussion on this is very much the kind of humanities work that belongs in this initiative.

Let’s say the humanities often gets caught up in discussion, but action and actionable programs aren’t necessarily the strongest attribute of that academic wing … Would you be able to tell me an example of what a project that would generate discussions looks like, or the things you’re seeking in the works you’re funding? Well, I think we’re seeking to stimulate and support public conversation, which takes advantage of the resources of the humanities. Humanities scholars and organizations are not public policy thinkers or entities. They are, however, individuals and entities that can help us understand the choices that we have. So, getting clear about what the choices are and what the issues are to any actionable program — which is more the sphere of public policy people and social scientists I suppose — thinking through and understanding what’s in front of us, is very much in our realm, and that’s the first step of any public action on any of these issues.

STEM education programs get a lot of funding. Is there any sense of competition when it comes to funding, on your end of it? I don’t regard it as a competition, but I do regard it as a matter of fundamental importance that both the country and private funders have a role and have a stake in supporting of the humanities; broadly speaking, it’s hugely important. I’ll give you another example. We talk and worry a lot about the strength and quality of democratic citizenship, and here, too, the humanities provide foundational forms of knowledge and understanding that any definition of democratic engagement have to assume. You can’t have a robust democratic citizenship without a certain fundamental knowledge of history, and you can’t have a robust citizenship without a certain constitutional framework. Humanities are critical to any meaningful conversation about democratic citizenship, and one of the fears I have is we are letting go of a commitment to a notion that we are educating citizens. If we let go of that, we’re gonna have a lot of trouble realizing the goal of having an engaged citizenry.

What has taken its place, if that’s no longer the prevailing notion? I would point to other kinds of anxieties that we have in the educational setting in particular. We’re very anxious about creating professionals and people who are ready to engage in certain kinds of vocations. I understand that anxiety, and I’m not saying it’s not important, but we’re letting go of this notion of educating the whole person for a much more limited educational and pragmatic approach, and that’s a very big mistake. We can’t abandon this bigger idea that the educational process is about more than work readiness, career readiness, and technical kind of skills.

Why is it we have this black-and-white science/humanities divide, when there’s a possibility of viewing the world through a more integrated perspective? Why does STEM get the attention? We’ve been through this searing experience of the recession in recent years. We also have a kind of fascination with the power of the STEM disciplines and technology; that’s a very sort of culturally familiar preoccupation in American life. And we have sort of a deep cultural history of skepticism towards these less obviously utilitarian forms of thinking and engaging the world. So all of those are part of the mix. The argument that I find most compelling among all of the people I talk to is the one we already mentioned: this argument about democracy. It’s hard to find a person here in Washington who will say it doesn’t matter if you know about your history, or that it doesn’t matter if you know what makes the democratic history and structure of American life what it is. There’s almost nobody who will argue with you on that. Making it happen in the schools and supporting the schools is a different story. We need to hang onto these and other goals that we have for education. The notions of the whole person, the educated citizen, those are not notions that are thriving in public discourse.

We have a very limited idea of what a person can be; a person has to be synonymous with their occupation or paycheck… We live in all kinds of domains, but we also tend to undervalue the intellectual skills and capacities that come from a liberal arts perspective. In my experience professionally, the ability to communicate, to speak well, to think clearly about complicated problems — all of those things we talk about are really useful. They’re useful in professional settings as well as other parts of life. Even as I agree, we don’t want to be too narrow about what it means to live a life. We also want to acknowledge the places where these skills are used on a daily basis, professional settings as well as personal.

From what I perceive, there are a lot of parallels nowadays to when you were growing up in college, the late ’60s, early ’70s. We’re in a time of a lot of change, a lot of huge sociopolitical issues coming to a head at once. Schools played a huge role in shaping the public consciousness at that time. I would be interested in any reflections you might have … any parallels you might see, such as parallels in your job of shaping the trajectory of the humanities now, compared to the goals of education back then? I think there are a lot of parallels for students. I was thinking about this the other day. You know, sometimes people my age are tempted to think that our times were so different. You know, they’re not all that different. When I went, we were all coming out of the Vietnam War period, and there was a lot of social conflict in the United States. It was a period of a lot of excitement around the various political movements, civil rights… There were some pretty rough financial and economic disturbances in late ’60s and early ’70s, too.

We were in a very contentious time in the country, there was a lot of social tension and conflict, and we were experiencing a lot of racial questions, as we are now. In some ways, no times are exactly alike, but the world’s students are now inheriting new technologies shaping things in a quick and dramatic way. There are parallels, and what I’m eager to say to students is there are lots of opportunities for them to engage in public life and public questions and to make a difference. I think with education, it’s always potentially relevant. I think it’s true now that we do have sort of a new phenomenon on the tide of STEM, and I don’t remember there being as much skepticism in my time about the humanities and the liberal arts and what you should be doing in college. There was a little less pressure on us then. But in other ways, there are similarities between these times and those.

In terms of what was taught, many theories of social consciousness exploded; a lot of very powerful theoretical frameworks came into being at that time. We’re still living in that echo. Yeah, I think any time in which there’s a lot of social agitation and conflict are likely to be times of great productivity and creativity in the arts and humanities. It was true in this country, it was true in Europe, and, yeah, that had a lasting impact in leading all these new sort of ways of thinking.

At the same time, some of those modes of thinking have turned inward. You have talked about wanting to move away from that. How can we make sure these deep ways of thinking don’t again turn into academic navel-gazing? Well, what I’m trying to do here is to interest people of all kinds in the humanities, to turning towards the most public and publicly accessible issues, to at least spend part of their time on issues we would all agree matter. There’s a major contribution that people can make there. I find that message resonates in the academy now, and I don’t think it would have five or 10 years ago. Now it does. There’s a general acknowledgement that we might have become too internal, and too professionalized, and too technical in some of our preoccupations, so I’m reasonably hopeful that that new tendency or trend will prevail.

Anything else? Forgive me; the NEH is about to start celebrate it’s 50th anniversary. That’s a big deal. The National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities have made a big difference in this country in not only the preservation of our culture but also in the engagement with the people of our culture in and with our cultural resources, so I think it’s been a pretty important legacy that NEA and NEH have left, and I look forward to speaking about that out in California.


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