An informational hearing of the Joint Committee on Arts with Senator Ben Allen, Chair and Assemblymember Kansen Chu, Vice Chair was held in Sacramento on May 16, 2018. We invited our grantees, partners, and board members to speak on our behalf about their projects and their institutions to help showcase what the humanities look like on the ground in California and how the work and the impact that they have on their communities could not have been possible without the support of California Humanities. Our group of panelist began with two-time former board member of California Humanities, William Deverell, Ph.D. and we’d like to share his moving words below as he describes the multi-faceted discipline of the “humanities” as only he can.
“The humanities are a bridge, the most effective bridge, between scholarship and that public which all of us serve” – William Deverell, PhD
May 16, 2018
Good afternoon. My name is William Deverell.
To Chairman Allen, Vice Chair Chu and Committee Members, my warmest thanks for the invitation to be here with you today. I am honored to offer these brief remarks.
I am an historian, proudly allegiant to the humanities in practice and passion. I teach history at USC, and my position allows me to be in residence at The Huntington Library for teaching and research. To a humanist, this is the intellectual version of offering a kid the keys to the candy store.
I have served on the board of California Humanities two times. That service has been, easily, the most rewarding public work of my entire career. It is a privilege to work at the seam between the vast California public and the scholarly world of, in my case, American history, specifically the history of California and the American West.
My prompt this afternoon is to define the humanities. It’s not an easy question. One answer, one that I’m mostly good with, is that the humanities occupy that sector of knowledge production carved out by a set of disciplinary interests – history, literature, philosophy, classics, as well as allied or cognate fields interpreting texts or art, events and lives, moments and eras. It is not hard to find humanities departments within the university – we’re the fields sandwiched in between the social sciences and the arts. We are the Letters in colleges of letters, arts, and sciences. We are book people: we read them and we write them, and we make our students read them and think about them.
That’s one way to define the humanities, and it is useful: a set of fields exploring ideas about humans and the human condition. On our best days, we think of our work as a calling, and we revel in the civil exchange of ideas about just what it means to be human – we acknowledge and draw sustenance from that root of the word itself – the human in the humanities.
But allow me to bring academic and pointy-headed distinctions to the ground and real experience here in California.
The humanities are a bridge, the most effective bridge, between scholarship and that public which all of us serve. The humanities obligate us to speak to big audiences and big publics. Of course there is room for arcane academic argument and language – there is technical precision in the humanities; arguments steeped in archaic texts, languages, experiences. But, at heart, doing the humanities is an act of translation, fostering the transmission of ideas and insights from the academy to broader publics. But this is a bridge open to two-way traffic. Because our medium is usually words spoken, written, or otherwise, we can and do bring the public’s worded lives and concerns into academic settings, so as to make the public’s yearnings legitimized for academic research, so as to make the public heard. The humanities communicate – me to my classroom, yes, but so too from the world of Californians to that classroom – Californians young and old, Californians from every walk of life and every corner of this state, impossibly diverse in background and experience and locale.
We are Californians all. Think of what we ask the humanities to teach us. Think of the bonds of community and purpose we ask the humanities to help us forge.
Think back. The humanities tell us who we are. Mysterious, puzzling, open to debate: who came first to California, who populated this place, and when? The humanities package data: dendrochronology, archeology, paleontology, forensic anthropology – and helps tell a human story of migration from far to the North, from the steppes, from Asia – or maybe from Polynesia by outrigger canoes, all thousands of years ago, likely more. The humanities pose origin stories, just as they interpret and analyze them.
The humanities remind us of our patrimony of ancient diversity, predating any modern assumptions of difference and multiculturalism. They make a chain of humanity that stops, for the moment, with us.
The humanities caution us, and they ennoble us. Of course we find the pain and heartaches in our past. The humanities teach us about genocidal violence aimed at California’s indigenous peoples, a murderousness that we must place against any quaint vision of happy go lucky gold rush miners splashing in Sierra streams as they illumined the Golden State in nickname and hope. They did splash, but they killed, too. The humanities doesn’t expect them to be without sin, nor does it let these young men off history’s hook of judgment. Simultaneously, the humanities raises up the best of us and of them: the poets and the lyrical who made of California a dream, the musical, the strivers, and all those whose lives they touched and who, yet, are touched by them. I teach Bret Harte, I teach Richard Henry Dana, I teach Josiah Royce and Dame Shirley and the stories of Chilean gold miners; I teach Ishi and Father Serra; I teach the lives of Mission Indians who learned Spanish and the Catholic sacraments but who, upon their deaths, made certain that their graves had Indian beads and shells alongside Inquisition-era Catholic prayers as their final send off because, well, because this life and the afterlife are complicated environments – the humanities helps us see, and sometimes unlock, that very complexity. The humanities guide my students forward, past the Gold Rush unto the ways in which California played a critical role in the coming of the Civil War, unto Reconstruction, onto urbanization, the rise of Los Angeles, war, Depression, more war. We hang out with Woody Guthrie in LA, we walk with Chavez and Huerta and Steinbeck. We explore the rise of Nixon and Reagan, of Edmund Browns senior and junior, of Stanford and Sally Ride, of Didion and Breitbart, of Angela Davis and Mario Savio, and we think hard about films and freeways, national parks, earthquakes and fires, and crime and punishments, jails and redemption, justice and oppression, hope and despair. California is a big and often beautiful canvass upon which to picture lives past and present, and the humanities are the medium that brings it all to life and home.
The humanities echo across time and space. They take us from classroom to neighborhood, bridging experience and knowledge and audience. The humanities captivate fourth graders making sense of their state, and the humanities listen to those same ten year olds when they speak about what it means to be a Californian. The humanities take us from textbook learning to the oral history of someone who just arrived in California from anywhere and everywhere on the globe; from sources tucked safely away in archives to those under the bed, in the attic, out in the garage, even in the garbage. I’ve known many a dumpster diving librarian and archivist in my time: these heroes rescue the DNA building blocks of our shared humanities culture and the thanks we give them is nothing to what gratitude the future will bestow on them.
The humanities – the interpretation of words, histories, and experiences of being human, of being Californian — carry weight for all of us in California. They draw us together, even as they honor our differences. They help solder and sustain the great chain of being we have imperfectly constructed out here on the far west coast of North America. California is a necklace of experiences and histories, memories and dreams that we have all concocted: both individually and collectively. The humanities add value to all that – the humanities are, I think, our actual values. That the humanities are, at heart, about the very pluribus unum that defines us, suggests to me that the practice of the humanities ought to draw sustenance from the very public that they, in turn, ineffably mold and sustain.
You can watch all of our esteemed partners and grantees share in their own words what impact California Humanities funding has had in their communities: