Grass Roots Humanities

Article excerpt

"I have fallen in love with American names," the poet Stephen Vincent Benet once wrote. "The sharp names that never get fat/ The snakeskin titles of mining claims/The plumed war bonnet of Medicine Hat/ Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat."

Thirty years ago this summer, the National Endowment for the Humanities began an experiment that would change its future. Only five years old itself at the time, the Endowment was being prodded by Congress to share the work of the humanities more directly with the people. Faraway-sounding places like Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat were about to become less remote.

A testing began. Six states were selected. The Endowment would try different models of how a humanities program in the states might operate. Oklahoma and Maine were to look at a combined operation with existing state arts and humanities councils. Georgia and Missouri would look at the humanities as a part of a state's continuing education program. Wyoming and Oregon would form ad hoc committees and start from scratch-or in Latin, de novo. In the end, de novo was the choice-free-standing councils.

Growth came quickly. Within a year, eleven more states became involved: Alaska, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, North Carolina, Louisiana, Nevada, Ohio, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Ideas sprouted, too. A reading and discussion program in a living room in Vermont was adapted by the American Library Association and taken nationwide. From North Dakota, the blue-and-white striped tents of Chautauqua blossomed across the landscape west to Nevada and east to New Hampshire, with scholars playing Thomas Jefferson and Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott. …

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