What is Public Humanities?

Public Humanities is the work of moving humanistic knowledges among individuals and groups of people. Some of the most common varieties of that work are translational scholarship; cultural organizing; production of programs, plays, performances, tours, festivals, or other audience-oriented humanistic activities; and maker activities, particularly making art, music, writing; and generally ways of making meaning socially, or making personal meaning in public space.

If that seems vague, you’ll want to make like an undergraduate on a deadline and reference the Wikipedia page, which M.A. students in the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities & Cultural Heritage–where I serve as a post-doctoral research fellow and Director of Graduate Studies for the program of which I’m also an alumna–wrote and re-wrote over many semesters. There, “public humanities” is defined as “the work of federal, state, nonprofit and community-based cultural organizations that engage the public in conversations, facilitate and present lectures, exhibitions, performances and other programs for the general public on topics such as history, philosophy, popular culture and the arts.” Just in case that definition seems too narrow, the definition goes on: “Public humanities programs engage everyone in reflecting on diverse heritage, traditions, and history, and their relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of life.” The “history” for that page reveals that a plurality of the edits were made by our Center’s founding director, Steven Lubar, whose Introduction to Public Humanities classes have, off and on, been a site of contestation over the phrase for a decade. That the definition is capacious should also be no surprise; it has something to do with the vastness of the umbrella term “humanities” itself, as well as the wide array of kinds of institutions that engage publics around it. But Steve has also played a role in it, in his many modes of producing new conceptions of the public humanities; in fact, when Jim McGrath, Inge Zwart, and I (Robyn Schroeder) began pursuing research on the public humanities, Steve’s first piece of advice was not to allow whatever we found about the history constrain the capacity of term to grow in the future.

This, I will endeavor to do below, although the quick-and-dirty history I lay out contains no shortage of potential constraints and people who felt themselves to be deeply constrained in the humanities.

The first question I asked, in working on this mini-essay, was: What does it mean to ask “what is the public humanities?” There was, after all, public humanities before there (quite recently) was the phrase “public humanities”, and those of us for whom the term has meaning know that there are still many more public humanists than the very small proportion who now claim the name explicitly. Because even the vastness of digital space seems too small to take on millennia of histories of genealogists, chroniclers, artisan guilds, and singing traditions and their various facilitators and midwives, it seems prudent to use this opportunity to say a bit about the origins of the phrase itself instead.

Broadly, the history of the public humanities per se arose in the last fifty years. It is, then, more recent in proliferation than its nested cousin “public history”; owes much more to the public sector than its bosom friend “museology”; is more cultural in orientation than “civic engagement”; and tends to refer to a different set of institutions than those which are oriented toward “community engagement” or “service learning”. However, it both overlaps in dizzying ways with all of those categories…. and is used less frequently than any of them, as this Ngram shows.

Ngram public terms2

From the time of the passage of the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965, shortly after which “public humanities” first began to appear as a searchable phrase in the English language, the idea of “public humanities” was purely adjectival. That is, at first there were “public humanities programs” and “public humanities grants” and most of these were part of initiatives of the National Endowment for the Humanities and eventually the Institute for Museum and Library Services, as our group’s data-mining showed.


But the path from “public humanities programs” to “the public humanities” was actually quite a leap. The impetuses for formulating the category into both a practitioner and scholarly field were instrumental in several regards. First, by the late 1970s, academic humanists, cultural practitioners in contact with the NEH, and politicians concerned with the moral timbre of American life, increasingly bemoaned a divide between the academy and the public.

Indeed, one way of narrating the rise of “the public humanities” is to see in it the frustration of the new class of professionals in the state humanities councils with academic humanists whom they saw as disengaged with non-academic publics. A 1980 volume by James P. Smith and Steven Weiland called The Extracurricular Curriculum: Academic Disciplines and Public Humanities Programs represented what was, at that time, a culmination of state humanities councils’ multifarious efforts to devise strategies for investing university-based scholars in a “public pedagogy”—readying them to leave campus and engage diverse publics with humanistic concerns. They sought to “improve the scholar’s readiness to present and exchange ideas with the public as one knowledgeable about history, literature, philosophy, and the other disciplines.” This endeavor–to conscript labor for what is now frequently called “translational scholarship”–was built, in that sense, interrelationally between humanities councils and universities, and gradually built the cadre of humanists invested in reaching wider audiences and, sometimes, taking on non-traditional projects.1

This liminal work–between academic humanists and the publics created and maintained by cultural institutions–slowly but inexorably gave rise to “the” public humanities. Hesitantly, in 1984, the Hastings Center’s On the Uses of the Humanities: Vision and Application, suggested that “One could also speak of a ‘public humanities’, that is, a humanities dedicated to a public rather than an academic audience.” The intuition that “public humanities” meant the “non-academically-oriented humanities” has left an indelible mark. And the idea that these writers were, perhaps, the first to evince–that there was ‘a’ public humanities, a field in itself–was not the report’s crucial point. Its major concern, rather, was that “public” and “academic” were intuitively understood by most people as binarily opposite phrases. And hence they positioned public humanities here again as the end result of a translational, all but Gramscian phase through which academic knowledge became public, through lectures, exhibition, facilitated conversation, documentary film-making, or otherwise.2

So at least initially, the “public” in public humanities, was not intended to valorize academic knowledge so much as to constructively lodge an implicit critique of the prototypically “gated” university–to whose various internal publics the first part of the phrase seldom referred. For the humanists in the academy–or, for those like many of the professionals at the state humanities councils who increasingly used the term, who were seldom more than half outside of it–the idea of a “public humanities” gave words and vision to the hope of making humanistic knowledge more accessible, of bridging divides between the academy’s supposed surfeit of humanities and the public’s wont of it.

It ought not to surprise us that the idea of “public humanities” was a phrase intended to transform the orientations of academic humanists; after all, the university and the state humanities councils comprised the bulk of the institutional apparatus that had any commitment even to the word humanities. But to point this out  as if it were simply a case of making a common cause is to obscure a tension in the public humanities, between academic humanists and public humanists embedded in other institutions, a divide which has arguably been more pronounced than, say, that between public historians in the academy and those outside of it. To note the term’s origins as an intervention in the academic humanities is not intended to indicate the contemporary centrality of academics’ knowledges, or indeed of academic writers like myself, in the public humanities. In fact, the contemporary sensibility is that practitioners in museums, libraries, archives, arts organizations, community organizations, and at large constitute most of the field’s leading figures.

Still, from the ’80s, the rise of “the public humanities” might not have been possible except that populist aspirations to democratize humanistic knowledge by transforming the capacities of academic humanists and their work in and out of the university, were, by and large, consistent with conservative critiques of the obscurantism and leftism of the academy. Leading conservative figures, including Reagan-era NEH chairs William Bennett and Lynne Cheney,  increasingly bemoaned the state of humanities in higher education, and each went on the record to approve the significant budgetary cuts to the institution which they chaired. Their simultaneous fights to “save” the moral basis of the humanities as the centrifuge of a “good” education famously became the tempestuous wind in the sails of the culture wars.3


Image: Washington Post, 10 April 1982; D1. From Proquest Washington Post archive.

Bennett, who famously took public shots at cultural work which the agency he chaired had funded (such as the above-mentioned film From the Ashes… Nicaragua), penned his To Reclaim a Legacy in order to promote Western canonicity, and decry those educators whom he believed had “siphoned off, diluted, or so adulterated” the humanities such that “students graduate knowing little of their heritage.” A prototypical complaint of Bennett’s,  early in the report, was that “A student can obtain a bachelor’s degree from 75 percent of all American colleges and universities without having studied European history; from 72 percent without having studied American literature or history; and from 86 percent without having studied the civilizations of classical Greece and Rome.” The sensibility of his study was that humanities classrooms were no longer “for” the students who entered them, whom he imagined as, whatever their own backgrounds, inheriting American tradition that was avowedly white and Western. He turned over a sigificant chunk of the NEH’s budget toward promoting coursework and programming on the U.S. Constitution itself, wresting it out of political science and into as many humanisms as he could manage.4

Simiarly, Dr. Lynne Cheney, writing about “The Scholar and Society,” harkened to heritage and hailed the public humanities in her 1988 work Humanities in America. Cheney had also steered the NEH away from what she saw as over-specialization in the academic humanities, and away from considerations of power and identity.  In Humanities in AmericaCheney lauds new educational television programming, engaged museums and libraries, and a new wave of great literature from around the world. But the thrust of her reason for writing lies in her assessment that “It is not possible to make such a positive assessment when one looks at our colleges and universities.” While rising tuition and growing student populations partly explained the increased bent toward vocational training, Cheney believed faculty shouldered much of the blame. Though she sounded the trumpets of over-specialization, hollow multiculturalism, and liberal indoctrination, she also mourned the diminishment of what she saw as a particular climate of feeling in humanities classrooms, one once made possible by an appreciation of “timeless” values and by what many have since critiqued as her illusion of universality.

The humanities are about more than politics, more than social power. What gives them their abiding worth are truths that pass beyond time and circumstance; truths that, transcending accidents of class, race, and gender, speak to us all.

That is, she called for humanities pedagogy to be remade around supposedly eternal considerations of beauty, truth, joy, despair, and mortality, which would restore the climate of moral feeling which gave the humanities their meaning outside of the classroom–even as the humanities was martialing its capacity to see the cultural, political, and historical contingency of all of the above.5

Such was the moral clarion call, infused with its longing for relevance and, unfragmented, universal conversations and understandings, and for closing the allegedly growing linguistic and social barriers between academics and publics, which produced strange bedfellows in those early manifestations of calls for a “public humanities.” No less a figure than Robert Bellah, the Berkeley sociologist whose pioneering thinking on “civil religion” had made him an academic celebrity, actually picked up and repurposed many of threads woven into Bennett and eventually into Cheney’s tracts. Writing in The Public Humanities: An Old Role in Contemporary Perspective in 1984, Bellah notes that “the humanities” had originated as a phrase meant to differentiate most of the work of the university from “divinity” or “theology”, and that the original notion was deliberately infused with a moral purpose, to offer scholars paideia, “a normative preparation for a form of life embedded in a set of social practices.” The encroachment of the sciences into all areas of academic life had given to the possibility of a framework in which Bellah had no interest–the “applied humanities”–which would bend practitioners toward a form of thinking that would privilege the connections between technical issues in humanistic fields like art history and philosophy, and social problems. Instead, he thought a “public humanities”, the subject of the volume, might resupply the moral purpose which over-technical thinking had drained out of the academy. He acknowledged, too, like Bennett and Cheney, that indoctrination had been the historical purpose of the humanities, though he seemed to mean it more in terms of class than their aim against left-liberal politics.

“If the humanities are to help us with social vision it will not be, I believe, through the application of technical humanisitic disciplines to specific problems of social policy. It will be through a reappropriation of the right relation between the humanities and the practice of life… Clearly, I am calling for the revival of tradition and wondering where in the university that revival might take root.”
Other writers in the volume took issue with the perils and possibilities of an “applied humanities”–that is, a field of practice wherein the humanities were deliberately and directly applied to matters of public policy, a notion which had its brief heyday amidst this age of so-called “crisis in the humanities” which had been engendered by Cheney and Bennett’s moral panic. David Little agreed with Cheney’s basic condemnation of the hegemony of critical theory, and wrote in favor of a new public humanities against the “aristocracy of culture.” That is, “Uncontested and unchecked, humanistic learning can become disabling and diverting in respect to the crying moral issues of our time,” he concluded. Other writers believed that the newly conservative political climate of the NEH, and the prohibiton on “advocacy” that came with accepting government money in the form of NEH grants, was creating a new space for public humanities inside university classrooms. “The great humanists have always been advocates of alternatives: alternative methods of inquiry, alternative life styles, alternative forms of social order,” wrote G.W. French, disavowing the possibility that such a public humanities could be sufficiently “bias-free” to evade government crackdowns.6

The idea that the role of the public humanities would be to foment “alternative culture” both within and without universities, drove James Veninga, Executive Director of the Texas Humanities Council. He shared with conservative leaders at the National Endowment a fondness for humanities programs and activities that allowed for personal improvement, and with academic humanists formulating the meaning of “public humanities in the university, the sensibility that a moralized bond between humanistic knowledge production and and public self-understanding would revive civil society. Speaking in harsh criticism of an individuating popular culture which he believed was “undermining those civic bonds and obligations which are so essential to the well-being of democratic society,” he explained that “[t]he public humanities movement has stood for an alternative culture, one that draws its sustenance from reflection, dialogue and constructive engagement.” This formulation neatly encapsulates the synthesis of the contradictory elitisms and populisms which were animating the conversations around a “public humanities.” His democratic impulse was to return cultural institutions and cultural conversations to the broad mass of people–but with a late-20th century variant of a Victorian mission of uplift, and in order to save civil society from a sort of rottenness at the core.

In the ’80s, alternative frameworks which have since lost much of their luster, but which were constituent elements of early conversations about public humanities, still remained in circulation. One framework was the “applied humanities” which might take on the public policy and organizational management problems which had become matters of applied social sciences; advocates of this frame included, for example, most of Robert Bellah’s interlocutors in the volume mentioned above. At the same time, the idea of a “practical humanities” had better effect in pedagogical reform. It referred, in the main, to the classroom practices by which art, music, literature, and philosophy might be remade as entry point for “real-world” problems–such that the study of Christopher Marlowe, for example, might animate considerations of sexuality, aging, or political authority, in past and present. The phrase itself was already losing its currency, and the practice to which it referred had apparently come to seem increasingly self-evident.


By the late 1990s, after that second decade of “culture wars”, the idea of public humanities had inserted itself into the mix such that it was firmly on the rise. Its history, to that date, had a problem of prepositions, through which the present tensions of the public humanities field can still be understood. In essence, the idea of “the public humanities” had first been leveraged against academic humanists, in an effort to induce them to engage broader publics–and then by academic humanists, in order to build space for alternative methods of engagement against reigning paradigms of humanistic inquiry. They moved, quickly, to learn from the methods of social scientistic ethnographers, oral historians, and journalists, as well as from curators, museum educators, genealogists and documentary film makers, and to aggregate those knowledges together under the “public humanities” tent. Through these processes, one way that academics came to understand “public humanities” was as scholarly way of describing a practitioner field. That formulation meant that the emerging scholarly field would continue to be defined by work happening outside of the university, or between the university and publics other than those who worked or learned there.

The beginning of the 21st century saw the incursion of the “public humanities” idea into formal modes of study–first at Brown and Yale, and then at a variety of mostly-interdisciplinary university centers around the country. Since that time, much of the energy in the burgeoning world of the public humanities has gone to de-centering the exclusive and hierarchical modes of humanistic knowledge production the university is seen by many practitioners as favoring–but also, as Mary Mullen has recently pointed out, to valorizing the new class of intellectuals who maintain the university’s status precisely by valorizing non-academic knowledges within academic frameworks.7 

A tension between academic and non-academic public humanists was an originary impulse of, and has remained at the core of this field, and has animated our reasons for holding a “Day of Public Humanities” that directs us in its socially mediated arm to look at the institutional and social contexts of our various sorts of labor. From inside the academy, that crucial tension with the world beyond it sometimes feels less pressing than the tensions around the public humanities within academic contexts, in negotiations through which the public humanities is occasionally conscripted to shore up doctoral study against precarity in the academic job market; is called up to evoke the university’s good will or even “service” to neighboring communities; or is lambasted, or sometimes only misunderstood, but traditional humanists for whom it sometimes signifies dilution of humanistic inquiry or a professionalizing threat to lofty standards of liberal learning. The difficulties of faculty in the public humanities, digital humanities, and public history with traditional publishing models bespeaks the uneasy “fit” of these disciplines into the conventional academic modes of inquiry of which these fields have, in the word “public,” an implicit critique. The three of us who began this project began out of a sense of trying to keep better faith within the academy with the diverse and amazing work of our own alumni and colleagues in museums, libraries, non-profits, and other cultural institutions, and in new sorts of engaged roles around universities themselves, and to think about the ways in which the innovations they forge and the precarities that they face mirror and diverge from our own.

Today, working at the Center for Public Humanities & Cultural Heritage at Brown,  it’s intriguing to imagine a universe in which the alternative frameworks that were still possible in the ’80s had come to fruition. What work might we do at a Center for Applied Humanities, or at a Practical Humanities Initiative? Who would be our students, our community fellows, our partners? What would we make, write, teach, and learn? It seems from here that the “public humanities” framework hits the ears as the most theoretical of the rhetorical efforts to intervene in an era in which culture warriors once deemed the traditional humanities overly theoretical. But the word “public” instead of “applied” or “practical” also has, I would argue, the happy outcome of having named people as the purpose of the work, rather than alternative methods of working.

The notion of “the public” and its much-discussed “sphere” of course, has its own, longer intellectual lineage. It also has real-world material reference to the bodies that share various spaces, including virtual ones at a distance, with us. The moral freight of tending to the publics to which we belong and to which we don’t, and to the public sphere through which we negotiate our social and political relations, has attached itself to the term, which I believe we must take as a signal of the good insight of the proponents of the idea of the public humanities.

As professionals increasingly move into and out of the academy–and back–and as the field as a whole, within the university and without it, is beset by casualizations, is underpaid, and is developing critical consciousnesses of all of the above, spaces and modes of work seem to be the fault lines to watch.

Robyn Schroeder / Williamsburg, Virginia & Providence, Rhode Island / April 2017


1. Smith, James P. and Steven Weiland, The Extracurricular Curriculum: Academic Disciplines and Public Humanities Programs. Federation of Public Programs in the Humanities. Minneapolis, MN: 1980.
2. On the uses of the humanities: vision and application : a report by the Hastings Center. Hastings-on-Hudson, NY: Institute of Society, Ethics, and the Life Sciences, Hastings Center: 1984.
3. Mitgang, Herbert. “Head of Humanities Fund Assails ‘Obscure’ Studies.” New York Times. Late Edition (East Coast); New York, N.Y. [New York, N.Y]31 May 1982: C.9.
4. Bennett, William J. To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education. Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Humanities, 1984.
5. Cheney, Lynne. Humanities in America: A Report to the President, the Congress, and the American People. Washington, D.C. : National Endowment for the Humanities, 1988.
6.French, R.S. and J.D. Moreno, eds. The Public Humanities: An Old Role in Contemporary Perspective. Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, 1984.
7. Mullen, Mary L. “Public Humanities’ (Victorian) Culture Problem. Cultural Studies 30(2):1-22 · April 2014.