Since this year marks Humanities Texas's fortieth anniversary, our 2013 newsletters will present a number of special features reflecting on the organization's first four decades. This month, we feature passages from staff member Erica Whittington's interviews with James Veninga, whose tenure with Humanities Texas spanned twenty-three years. He became assistant director in 1974, and served as executive director from 1975 to 1997. Jim not only emerged as a significant cultural force in Texas, he also became a respected leader among the nation's humanities councils. We are pleased to share his reflections on his experiences at the helm of a dynamic, evolving organization.
The council has undergone several name changes over the course of its history. Originally known as the Texas Committee for the Humanities, it changed its name to the Texas Council for the Humanities under Veninga's leadership to reflect the increasing use of the word "council" rather than "committee" by Congress and other state programs. In consideration of its thirtieth anniversary, the council desired a name more reflective of its inclusive, accessible approach to supporting public humanities programs around the state, so on January 1, 2004, the council changed its name once again, this time to Humanities Texas.
I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and grew up in the upper Midwest. I graduated from high school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. After two years at Sioux Falls College, I was ready to experience a different part of the country, and, I will admit, I couldn't wait to get away from the cold winters. So I headed south in a rather old Nash Rambler and enrolled in Baylor University. I met my wife there, Catherine Williams. . . . After graduating from Baylor in 1966, I went off to Harvard Divinity School, got a master's degree in theological studies from there. . . . We both got our PhD degrees from Rice University. I graduated in 1974 in religious studies and history.
Then, somehow or other, I heard about this whole new development that the National Endowment for the Humanities was undertaking, that of developing state humanities councils. I saw an ad for the position of assistant director of the Texas program. I applied for that job and was accepted, and started in late '74, and became director the next year. I was with what is now Humanities Texas for twenty-three years.
The Cold War had an interesting flip side to it. We think of the Cold War mostly in terms of the international tensions and conflicts, military buildups, nuclear arsenals, and so forth. But there was also a recognition that other matters were at stake: What does it take to be a great civilization? What is the United States going to do to maintain its leadership position within the world? How are we going to maintain leadership in the arts and scholarly work in the humanities as well as the sciences? What can be done to further creativity within the United States? President Eisenhower's Commission on National Goals issued its report in 1960 noting that, "In the eyes of posterity, the United States as a civilized society will be largely judged by the creative activities of its citizens in art, architecture, literature, music, and the sciences." So we were competing with the Soviet Union on the cultural front. That discussion began in earnest under President Kennedy, and then President Johnson continued with this effort to further the arts and humanities in America, an endeavor that became part of the Great Society of the Johnson Administration.
The National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 established the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts and was signed in the Rose Garden in 1965. Vice President Hubert Humphrey went to the signing with a big smile on his face, and he said, "By golly, at last the Congress voted to have some fun!" He too was a big supporter of this legislation. So both endowments were created, one to support the arts and one to support the humanities.
The founding legislation proclaimed that American democracy needs the humanities. . . . This premise became the anchor for us in terms of a rationale for a state humanities program that would be deeply connected to helping ensure a healthy democracy. The board and staff strongly believed that humanities education—in elementary and secondary schools, in our colleges and universities, and in our communities where the public humanities could be fostered—worked to strengthen American democratic culture and American democracy. That's the background for NEH and the state program.
If one looks at the legislation creating the National Endowment for the Humanities, two major concerns stand out. One is the need to expand public access to the humanities, opening up the humanities to the American people. Behind that is the idea that the humanities don't belong just inside the ivory tower but really are a part of culture, a part of people's lives. The humanities belong to the people, and people should have access to the humanities for continuing education and learning.
The other emphasis of the legislation that pertained especially to the state humanities councils was the obligation to relate the humanities to the current conditions of national life. . . . For us, that also meant the conditions of state life. The mandate given to the councils was that the humanities were to be used to help enrich the lives of people, and that we were especially to focus on the uses of the humanities in dealing with public problems, public challenges, and public issues.
There was tremendous excitement about all this. Something new was here, something important was happening, and people in the humanities were being asked to step up to the plate and do things in a public way that they just hadn't been asked to do before. . . . After a certain period of time we began to see it as a movement, a public humanities movement. This meant the involvement of many scholars across the state and nation who were interested in public concerns, issues, and topics, and who were willing to do public work. This was fresh. . . . I think that congressional leaders and the NEH initially saw this as an important way of helping to ensure the vitality and health of American democracy. It promoted citizen engagement in issues, it countered the deadening influence of popular media, and it meant that public issues could be discussed in a more intelligent and open way. The practice of democracy, the preservation of self-government, the continuation of the institutions of democracy all depended upon a citizenry that has a sense of history, an ability to understand problems, and to engage in conversation about them. It really is about American democracy. That's how I see it. It generated enthusiasm from board members and staff alike.
So for the first four years of the council's existence, from 1973 to 1977, we focused on public policy issues—issues having to do with criminal justice, public education and the challenges facing our schools, inequities in funding for public education, immigration, public health, the status of seniors, poverty, urban issues, border issues. This program emphasis on public policy issues was mandated by the NEH during these early years. There was a lot of creativity during that period of time, because this emphasis pressed the humanities scholars of the state to take their discipline and ask, how does my discipline relate to this particular issue? What can the historian contribute to a discussion of immigration policy? What can a philosopher whose specialty is aesthetics contribute to a discussion of urban design? What can a sociologist contribute to a discussion of changes in how we see children and juvenile justice? What can the political scientist contribute to community discussions regarding the separation of church and state? . . . This was a chance for scholars to think in a much more public way, to think outward, to talk outward, to write outward. . . . It was also an opportunity for scholars to hear from the public, and many were deeply influenced by that dialogue.
For the council's first few years, we officed in the basement of The University of Texas at Arlington Library. . . . Statewide, we were pretty much an unknown entity, so the fact that we were in Arlington made it more difficult to achieve visibility and work with other statewide agencies. The board and staff concluded that we needed to be in Austin. So, despite the generous free office space, a decision was made to relocate the office in 1979 and we moved to Austin in 1980.
Gaining visibility was really a tough challenge in the early years. We were a small nonprofit, new, untested, unique in its founding and mission, trying to gain that visibility. That was always an issue for us. . . . I, and other members of the staff, would travel frequently, going to universities to meet with administrators and faculty and to meet with leaders of community organizations as well, including libraries and museums. Board members represented us in their respective communities.
[Editor's note: Until the early 1980s, the council was primarily a grant-making organization with little council-conducted programming, with one exception, noted below.]
It wasn't until the early 1980s that we began to do council-conducted projects. The one exception to that, however, was the Texas Humanities Resource Center, which was created to stimulate programming in more rural communities, in small libraries, small museums, but in classrooms too, in colleges as well as in secondary schools. It was a way of responding to the complexity of the state and was probably our first really big effort to undertake a program in which we were directly involved, even though it was primarily supported at first by way of a grant. . . . It began with a mandate from NEH . . . to reach out to the small towns of Texas. We created the Resource Center to develop packaged programs that would be easy to use at the local level, whether it was the tiniest local library in some small community, or a small museum, or a chamber of commerce that wanted to put up an exhibit, or even a college library. These institutions were often big-time users of the materials. So that was the origin of the Resource Center and what ultimately became the exhibitions program of Humanities Texas. . . . By the 1990s there were eighty-three photo panel exhibits, 115 films, four hundred videos, ninety-five slide tape programs, and hundreds and hundreds of print resources that went with these. By 1997 it had sponsored 3,600 programs across the state, serving 6.9 million people. It was all on a very modest budget. . . . It was also an ideal way to provide teachers who were just strapped for money, for resources, to give them resources to use in the classroom, so teachers became really interested in the materials. . . . It just was so much fun for me the last time I was here at Humanities Texas to see the exhibitions program, seeing how successful that it still is and what an important part of the program that it still is.
Once the council shifted to creating more of its own programs, and a policy shift at NEH made that possible, one of the largest projects that we funded was the Texas Women's History project, which I considered to be one of the really outstanding endeavors of the council. . . . That was the beginning of a movement to document women's history in Texas and it was begun by lay people, not by academics, by women out in the community, just an extraordinary group of people, Mary Beth Rogers, Ellen Temple, Ruthe Weingarten, and Ann Richards. It resulted in revisions and additions to the Handbook of Texas. It resulted in improving the public school curriculum in history. It contributed to the development of women's studies within the universities in Texas. . . . There was a beautiful story in the Humanities Texas newsletter a year ago about the background of this project. Ellen Temple, who gave the speech at a luncheon that is recorded in the newsletter, cites that early grant as being critical to the success of the project. So that's an example of a large project that was enormously successful, but they did a lot with a relatively small amount of money that then generated extensive funding.
Mexican American studies really got off the ground in our colleges and universities in the 1980s. Public school textbooks were being rewritten to include perspectives from women and minorities in ways that had never been done before. The teaching of Texas history in the state was being significantly rewritten to be more inclusive [and was being] revamped because of all the new work that was taking place. The humanities council was out in front in encouraging these changes. We were very responsive to projects that promoted this enlarged sense of Texas and U.S. history. If you look at the composition of the board, we made sure that all those early pioneers of Mexican American studies, women's studies—well, not all, but many—were represented on the board. So, we were out there pushing the boundaries of how we should understand the humanities.
One can see that in our many publications, including The Texas Humanist and then the Texas Journal of Ideas, History, and Culture, where a lot of the writing focused on what was happening in Texas, what was happening in our society and our culture, and how do we deal with this magnificent pluralism that we were coming to know and appreciate? But serious questions were raised as well in these publications and in the wider work of the council: How far had we really come in terms of ensuring equal opportunity in this country? At that time we were just a couple decades out from the civil rights movement and the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. . . . I think that the council has made a real contribution to this state over its forty-year history. I know that we have plenty of issues to deal with, profound issues, but I think the recognition then—in the 1980s and 1990s—of how Texas was changing and what we needed to do to ensure a stronger public education system and a better understanding of the history of this state, the complex history of our relationship with Mexico, the condition of African Americans before the civil rights era, and how we needed a more engaged and knowledgeable citizenry—all of that, was very powerful, and I think the council did a really good job given the resources that we had.
The Texas Sesquicentennial allowed us to fund many projects dealing with Texas history, and we also sponsored a number of projects ourselves, including one-minute spots that were broadcast on commercial television stations around the state and the publishing of a beautiful culminating coffee-table book, The Texas Experience, which was the title for the television series as well. Another book, Texas Myths, came out of this mid-1980s effort to explore the history of the state.
In the late 1980s and 1990s the Texas Journal of Ideas, History, and Culture . . . gave the Texas council some significant visibility—before the age of electronic newsletters and journals. New desktop publishing software made production a more efficient process and maximized opportunities for us to highlight grant programs taking place statewide. If there was a successful project in El Paso, the magazine could pick up on it and give exposure to that project throughout the state and people in Lufkin or Plano or wherever could read about it and perhaps be encouraged to undertake something similar. You know what else it did? It provided an outlet for faculty members who were doing public scholarship. That was important because it meant that they had an avenue to see their public work in print. . . We used the term "public service scholarship." . . . Ernest Boyer, the former secretary of education, came out a few years later, and he called it the "scholarship of engagement." So since then, public scholarship, public service scholarship, scholarship of engagement—that whole arena of faculty activity exists in part because of the state humanities councils. Public work in many universities has become a dimension of faculty life, and may count toward promotion and tenure.
The theme in the early 1990s was "Building a New Texas." . . . Part of the new Texas that we saw was a growing recognition of extensive global connections that Texas had never really had before, and that economically and culturally, Texas was going to be part of globalization and a key player in it. . . . So we funded and sponsored many projects on this theme, including a five-part book series titled Preparing for Texas in the 21st Century: Building a Future for the Children of Texas.
I see a consistency in my tenure as director more than anything else and that has to do with staying with that mission, broadly conceived, that included two emphases. The first has to do with increasing access to the humanities. We live in an age where lifelong learning needs to happen, in the humanities as well as in more technical and professional fields. The person who is exposed to the humanities—to history and literature and political theory and philosophy—it is not only good for the individual but for society as a whole. The humanities can help citizens to be engaged in their communities and to carry out their own civic responsibilities. One learns more about our government, the world in which we live, our villages, towns and cities, the cultures that surround us. So the emphasis on access was a major part of our work.
But the other emphasis was also very important, and that has to do with demonstrating how the humanities can be effective in helping all of us understand complex public issues and problems. They have much to contribute to our understanding of the issues that often divide us. They provide the kind of reflection that can lead to common ground, or at least the search for common ground, common values. Both emphases are exciting, but the second one was especially challenging. We recognized that we had these remarkable resources around the state, incredible faculty members doing this work—philosophers and historians and literary critics and art historians and sociologists and political scientists and others. What can they bring to this problem, what can they bring to this issue, what can they bring to this topic? So making those connections was really, really exciting. The second emphasis was probably a bit more prominent in the early years, but it never left us. It may have evolved into broader concerns about the health of our civic and cultural life and how we meet challenges, but the willingness to use the humanities to stretch our imaginations in dealing with public issues remained.
I think if one looks at the state humanities program broadly, it should be seen as part of the civic education movement in higher education that has emerged in the last thirty years or so—a recognition that the old traditional split between town and gown is an artificial one and a mistaken one and not a good one. So our universities and the resources of our universities have to be connected to communities in new, exciting, and fresh ways. . . . These resources can enrich public schooling, our civic life, our culture, and better prepare us to deal with the big issues of our time.
"We know how important, as we move closer to the twenty-first century, the achievement of this goal [of society of lifelong learners] is to the future of self-governance, to the health of American democracy, to the preservation of freedom, to free institutions. Learning must not stop at the sixth grade, or the twelfth grade, or with a BA, or a PhD degree. Increasingly we will need citizens in touch with history and culture, knowledgeable of the world around them, at home with ideas, able to understand the increasingly difficult choices that we are required to make as individuals and as a nation, and eager to engage their fellow citizens in discussion of those choices. The alternative to this vision of a learning society is a state and a nation of isolated and devalued individuals forced to endure repeated clashes of opinions and convictions, not open to nor tolerant of the dignity and freedom of others, and unable to work toward shared values and commonly held goals in a thinking society. There is no need for that to happen. We have books and scholars. We have citizens with ideas. We have energetic institutions committed to public programming. We have an expanding core of individuals eager to work for the public good. We have a little bit of money and very much good will. So now is the time for us to link arms and march forward."
—Jim Veninga, triennial report submitted to NEH in 1995.