Humanities for All of Us: The NEH at 50

Posted by Dan Cohen in September 29, 2015.

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Sunday night there wasn’t a cloud in the sky in Boston, and so we were fortunate to get a clear view of the rare supermoon eclipse. I took a telescope out to the backyard with my kids and we worked to line up the equipment, and then we chatted about astronomy, optics, and physics, umbras and penumbras. A moment of science? Yes, but ultimately much more.

The eclipse lasted for several hours, and the science part was quickly dispatched. That left plenty of time for greater thoughts to play out, as we were awed by the spectacle. My mind drifted to Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and their poetry and prose from the creepily dark summer of 1816; the apocalyptic paintings of John Martin; the impact of eclipses on ancient Jerusalem; and entreaties against the fearful night in the Book of Common Prayer (so evocatively described by Alan Jacobs in his recent “biography” of that Anglican prayerbook). In short, I experienced the lunar eclipse simultaneously through the lenses of the telescope and the humanities.

Undoubtedly others had different literary, artistic, philosophical, religious, or historical thoughts come to mind. (As well as less highbrow allusions: for some reason, I also thought of Space: 1999.) But it’s impossible to imagine our experience of a lunar eclipse without the framing of our shared culture. We are humans, not machines, and we do not experience daily life—or awe-inspiring events—mechanically. We are constantly applying our understanding of the past, of writing and interpretations, of the spirit and art, to what we see and do.

The National Endowment for the Humanities has been supporting and broadly communicating that profound understanding for 50 years. Their anniversary website shows the incredible breadth and depth of their programs, projects, and topics. The NEH has not stood still, either; the establishment of the Office of Digital Humanities a decade ago, for instance, catalyzed an incipient field and led to productive commerce between the humanities and many other fields, including the sciences.

And the NEH has been a leading supporter of the Digital Public Library of America, which we hope will serve as a storehouse of shared—and open—culture for the next 50 years and beyond. We salute the National Endowment for the Humanities on their fiftieth, and thank them once again for underwriting the full range of human experience.