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Humanities development fund – history, objectives and projects
by Margaret Oakes
“The first thing I shall do, as soon as I receive the money, is to buy Greek authors; after that, I shall buy clothes.” — Desiderus Erasmus.
Erasmus' famous comment from 1500 characterizes the financial straits plaguing all scholars for centuries, but especially scholars in what we commonly call the “humanities,” a group of disciplines derived from the old notions of a liberal arts education. These disciplines commonly include classical and modern languages, literature, history and philosophy. However, as economic resources are increasingly focused on science and technology and are increasingly diminishing for academia in general, locating funding for projects and research in the humanities has become correspondingly difficult.
The Humanities Development Fund (formerly the NEH Challenge Grant) is trying to change that for professors and students at Furman.
In December 1997, Furman received a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The original intention of the grant, titled “The Humanities and the Digital Age,” was to study ways in which the computer revolution would affect traditional teaching and learning in the humanities.
During the lifetime of the grant, humanities faculty have developed new courses and adapted their pedagogical approaches to incorporate a greater use of digital technology. Entirely new courses have been created under the rubric of Humanities 21, providing upper-level students with a unique opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary study.
For instance, Melinda Menzer (English) and Claude Stulting (Religion) have twice taught “The Joy of Texts: The Pursuit of Meaning in Sacred, Secular, and Cyber Space.” This course contextualized the computer revolution as one technological development among many, including the book. Menzer recalls one student being confounded that, because of the vagaries of text ownership and publication, multiple versions of Shakespeare's Hamlet exist, a fact almost inconceivable in a modern world of copyright and editorial control.
Another example: Aristide Tessitore (Political Science) and David Morgan (French) have taught “Rival Meanings of Freedom in the Western Tradition,” which focused on the political philosophy that undergirds democratic thought.
The spring 2005 iteration of Humanities 21 will explore the history and practice of the liberal arts in the western tradition from the classical period to the present, with a brief stop to focus on the history of the liberal arts in American society and government and the status of liberal arts education on American campuses. In addition, revisions and updates have been made to the freshman Humanities sequence, which surveys western civilization from ancient Egypt to the collapse of the Soviet Union in three sequential classes.
Since the term of the NEH's participation in the grant ended, the committee overseeing the HDF — currently Bill Allen (MLL), John Armstrong (Communication Studies), John Barrington (History), Margaret Oakes (English), Richard Prior (Classics), Mark Stone (Philosophy) and Claude Stulting (Religion) — have expanded the abilities of the fund. A variety of projects other than course development are now funded, limited only by the imagination and enthusiasm of the faculty. In addition, the HDF provides financial backing for the editing and publishing of the Furman Humanities Review , which for the past 17 years has furnished an outlet to publish research in the humanities by Furman students.
The upcoming spring term will feature a series of symposia to consider the nature of humanistic study and pedagogy, with a week of events in March focused on student concerns, a week in April on the interests of faculty, and a week in May on the role of the humanities and of Furman in the larger community. These symposia will feature outstanding speakers both within and without the academic community: Christopher Phillips, author of The Socrates Café ; Gerald Graff of the University of Illinois-Chicago, a leading voice in discussion of liberal arts pedagogy; Robert Gaines, director of the Honors Humanities Program at the University of Maryland; and Frank Holleman, a 1976 Furman graduate, prominent Greenville attorney and former Deputy Secretary of Education.
The Humanities Development Fund can solve part of Erasmus' problems: it won't help with those clothing bills, but it will help further Furman's commitment to providing a strong liberal arts education for its students.(The writer is an associate professor of English.)