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  • Meeting Our Publics: A Search for the Right Questions in Public Humanities
  • Robert Gibbs (bio)

This volume contributes to ongoing discussions about the possibilities for the humanities to relate to publics beyond the university. The essays offer a harvest of thinking from a two-day workshop sponsored by the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI) and hosted at the Jackman Humanities Institute of the University of Toronto in June 2015. Scholars from North America, Europe, Africa, and Australasia gathered to develop a global perspective on issues that have changed radically since the broadcast and public lecture models of the mid-twentieth century. We focused on how to reinterpret the engagement of humanities scholarship with diverse publics, moving beyond the quasi-missionary outreach model of the traditional public humanities. What can we learn from our publics as well as bring to them? We explored the history of universities; theories of publics; public lectures and festivals; and, to a lesser extent, the task of justifying humanities to public funders and critics. Themes of inquiry and of education helped contain what we discussed, and our reflection was located in the spaces of humanities centres and research institutes – not in the main university locations of departments and disciplines.

CHCI is a natural global host for such an exploration. It is an international consortium of over 170 organizations and affiliates in 23 countries. It holds an annual meeting, including in 2013, Humanities, Publics, and the State at The Hall Center for the Humanities, University of Kansas, Lawrence, USA. It also sponsors various groups to develop networks, and one of those has been a Public Humanities group, which has met for an hour each year at the annual meetings. A smaller group met for a workshop in Toronto in order to discuss the public humanities with the challenge to delve deeper than is possible in an annual breakfast or lunch meeting. The papers were pre-circulated for the workshop, and the ensuing conversations both engaged the participants with energy and rigour, and yielded these essays that, we believe, will enhance the contemporary discussion significantly. These essays work with concrete examples of successful programs to generate a subtle dialogue about what it means to be committed to the value of the examined life in public places in an era of information profusion.

The series of essays begins with a report from an online survey of CHCI members, conducted by Brigham Young University, that seeks to [End Page 1] map the present state of play for humanities centres. Matthew Wickman provides a reflection on the complex and diverse responses. What emerges most clearly, however, is the tension between what is valued as humanities research and the activities of humanities scholars engaging wider publics beyond the university. In some important ways, this is a key index of the relations our universities have with our societies – and this goes deeper than merely a question of how to justify the humanities (or the university), to raising fundamental questions about what higher education is, and why it matters.

The second essay, by Jolyon Mitchell, turns to the relation of humanities to the arts, offering an interrogation of faces, threading together reflections on Cannes, festivals in Edinburgh, and an exhibition at the British Museum in London. The human faces in these diverse and dynamic settings provoke questions which the public humanities can address, as they interrogate celebrity, analyse portrayals of suffering, and, in the shadows of dangerous memories, even help to create materials to inspire peace.

The next two essays, by David Thunder and David Shumway, present more general reflections on what the humanities are for by exploring the history of universities and theories of knowledge. Shumway makes the case for a non-instrumental public benefit: that the humanities are not a source of economic gain, but rather that sharing the reflective activities of the humanities will enhance the life of public reason in our society. This is in contrast to the Humboldtian university, where the life of humanities scholars is secreted away from the wider publics. Thunder, to the contrary, presents a spirited defense of Humboldt (and Newman) by focusing on the task of seeking truth for its own sake. There...


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