NEH chairman expresses concern regarding the future of the humanities

Olivia Mann/THE REVIEW
Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, William D. Adams, came to the university to voice his concern regarding the future of the humanities.


With the increasing mechanization of higher education, the tremendous rise in the cost of higher education and the increasing popularity of majors in STEM in higher education, William D. Adams, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), reinforces what many humanities students and professors are experiencing – the appearance of STEM as a competitor, and maybe even a conqueror, of the humanities.

The humanities versus technology focus in education is a generational debate, though perhaps one with a milestone. The future of the humanities and federal funding for the NEH very well may lay in the outcome of this year’s general elections, where candidate platforms greatly differ.

On Wednesday, the university welcomed Adams to campus as part of the Thought Leader speaker series.

The NEH, formed in 1965, is the nation’s leading funder of the humanities and scholarship, and public humanities programming. Adams is the tenth chairman of the NEH. Previously serving as the president of Colby College in Waterville, Maine, Adams led a $376-million capital campaign that incorporated an expansion of the Colby College Museum of Art.

Additionally, Adams spearheaded the establishment of a center for arts and humanities and a film studies program, and reinforced the college’s commitment to writing across the curriculum.

His visit to the university, which included a talk titled “The Common Good: The NEH at 50,” and brief remarks at the university’s opening reception for “First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare,” at Old College Gallery, was part of a larger tour.

As Adams celebrates the 50th anniversary of the NEH, he looks forward to the agency’s next fifty years by visiting every state in the country and sharing his vision of the future of the humanities and the NEH.

“I think the NEH symbolizes the importance of our cultural and historical legacy in the United States,” Adams said. “And the public caring for and advancement of that legacy.”

Within the last four months, the University of Delaware has received two major NEH awards. One of the recent awards supports the Colored Conventions Project, a digital research collection. The Colored Conventions Project is directed by Gabrielle Foreman, the Ned B. Allen Professor of English at the university. The Colored Conventions Project, recently featured in the New York Times, explores, and ultimately, digitizes, the “colored conventions” spearheaded by black political activists in the 19th-century.

Additionally, the university is also one of the only three institutions in the country to receive one of the highly competitive Next Generation Humanities Ph.D. Implementation grants. According to the NEH’s website, these grants will “assist universities in implementing a new model of doctoral education,” thus preparing students to not only undertake various kinds of careers, but also expand their career paths.

“And I am very pleased to say, in front of this audience, that the University of Delaware has done very well in this highly competitive environment,” Adams said. “[The university has received] 161 grants from the NEH since 1965, totaling roughly ten million dollars.”

Adams began his talk by subtly referencing a moment from the fourth Republican GOP Debate, held on Nov. 10 at the Milwaukee Theatre, in which Marco Rubio remarked, “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”

Adams proceeded to highlight the ironies of this statement; the fact that so many political, economic and social innovations, such as Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society”or the founding of the American Republic, fundamentally stem from one of the greatest philosophical questions: What is the good society?

“There is substantial pressure on the humanities in every single educational setting in this country,” Adams said. “The indicators of that are enrollments and majors, and the dwindling number of teaching positions across the country.”

This substantial pressure is well understood by students within the university’s humanities departments.

“I think [the pressure] in the Honors Program is significantly worse,” sophomore Jennifer West said, “Just because a majority of Honors Program students seem to be majoring in fields of STEM. When I first came here, I put a lot of pressure on myself to do a second major in the STEM field. I realized that a lot of that pressure was from other people, subconsciously placed on me, from those responses.”

Most fundamentally, Adams called for an overhaul of the national perception of secondary education.

“We need to move beyond the consuming preoccupation with the vocational and with STEM. We need to drastically reduce the testing regime,” Adams said. “And most importantly, we need to re-engage this idea of the whole person and education for democracy.”

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