Friday, February 22, 2013

Geoffrey Harpham's Visit to Messiah College

Over the course of the last two days, Geoffrey Harpham took a break from presiding over the forty scholars in residence at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, NC and came to Grantham, PA to spend some time with us at Messiah College.

Not only is Harpham a wonderful advocate for the humanities and the author of the recent The Humanities and the Dream of America, but he is a really nice guy.  Jean Corey, the Director of the NEH-funded Messiah College Center for Public Humanities, described him as a scholar who was "very present" among our faculty and students.

I got several opportunities to chat with Harpham yesterday.  Members of the Messiah English Department and History Department picked his brain about digital humanities, academic life, and the best way of convincing students to major in humanities-related disciplines.

I was particularly impressed with a comment he made about the self-ambition and individualism of modern academics.  He said that it is very rare today for an academic to have any commitment to a particular college or university.  Rather than working to enhance mission or serve constituencies, the primary allegiance of scholars is to the profession or to the pursuit of academic stardom.  At one point in the conversation Harpham said that if he were starting a university from scratch he would want to hire the most distinguished faculty available, but only those who were willing to invest in the institution.  (Some of you may recall that I wrote a short essay on this very issue.  You can read it here).

Following coffee, I had lunch with Harpham and my colleagues who sit on the executive board of the Center for Public Humanities.  After a fruitful conversation about the Center and why the Messiah College administration is not willing to invest more deeply in it (especially in terms of course reductions for the director and enhanced programming--after all, it is one of the only NEH-sponsored public humanities centers in the country!), I filmed a session with Harpham for an upcoming edition of my Virtual Office Hours.  (Stay tuned).

His keynote address, which was delivered in the amazing new lecture hall in Messiah's newly constructed High Center for Worship and the Performing Arts, drew heavily from Chapter Six of The Humanities and the American Dream.  It was titled "Melancholy in the Midst of Abundance: How Americans Invented the Humanities."

Harpham took us on a tour of the way Americans understood the humanities in the post-war era.  He introduced us, for example, to The Harvard Red Book (1945), the Truman Report on the humanities (1947), the Report of the Commission on the Humanities (1964), Jimmy Carter's  "Malaise" speech, the Rockefeller Commission's "The Humanities in American Life," and Andrew Delbanco's The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope.

Humanities-related disciplines were taught to soldiers seeking an education on the G.I. Bill. The goal was to cultivate a "whole man," someone who was intelligent, spiritual, engaged in the world, a contributor to democratic culture, morally sound, and a loyal citizen.  Throughout the talk Harpham compared a vision of the humanities centered on consensus and the development of citizens committed to the common good, with a more self-oriented, individualistic, interior, and private understanding of the humanities.

For the sake of space, I will stop there.  I encourage you to get a copy of The Humanities and the American Dream.  Chapter Six is packed with interesting thoughts about the humanities and national defense during the Cold War, the conservative backlash on the humanities led by William Bennett and Lynne Cheney, and the relationship between private philanthropy and the humanities.

I ended the day thankful for an opportunity to think deeply about the role of the humanities in American culture.  Thanks, Geoffrey Harpham!