The Penn Humanities Forum:

A Think Tank for Town and Gown

by Wendy Steiner

The creation of the Penn Humanities Forum is a response on the part of the School of Arts and Sciences faculty and the administration to fundamental changes in the nature of humanistic research and general culture. For a long time, the gulf between the ivory tower and "real life" has been an accepted aspect of Western civilization, with academics and nonacademics content to keep their distance. Today, however, the arts and the university are under intense public scrutiny, and there is widespread skepticism abroad as to the value of both a humanistic education and the academic study of culture.

Though Penn has a remarkably vibrant and distinguished humanities faculty, the public questioning of the role of the humanities cannot help but give us pause. It is matched, moreover, by an internal questioning brought on by our own struggles to deal with rapid change in the phenomena we study and in the methods and frames of reference we apply to them. Whereas once national cultures existed relatively independently of each other, globalization, the rise of minorities, and the proliferation of new communication technologies have complicated these cultures. As a result, we are forced to re-examine difference and find ways to describe the hybridization of art and ideas in daily life. In contemporary experience, visual, aural, and verbal stimuli merge in a media barrage, with the result that the division of the arts into separate university disciplines is proving less and less productive. Humanistic scholars are faced with a new imperative: to explain how ideas and arts--high as well as low--interact in our personal and civic lives, and why they matter.

The organization of humanistic study at Penn, as at most universities, is for the most part an agglomeration of uncoordinated and often competing departments and programs. Despite the unusual amount of interdisciplinary activity here, it is still surprising how little we know about the work going on in our midst. None of us could begin to say what it means to be a "Penn humanist." Of course, one would never expect a sound-bite characterization, but if we are engaged in a common enter-prise, as most of us believe we are, we should welcome the opportunity to inquire as to what it might be.

Responsive to this situation, the Forum aims at nothing less than a shift in the "culture of the humanities" at Penn. It will promote this change through three mechanisms: an interdisciplinary research center, an administrative structure encouraging cooperation across departments and schools, and a liaison between Penn humanists and the City of Philadelphia. These initiatives will be interdependent. When a topic is set for the scholars visiting at the Forum in a given year, that topic can be echoed in a course of lectures open to both students and members of the community and taught by an interdisciplinary group of Penn professors and experts from the city's cultural institutions. Our think tank will be both a sponge and a sieve. It will promote a model of humanistic exploration in which the University and the city are respectful partners in a conversation extending across the Greater Philadelphia area.

To effect this plan, the Forum will consolidate existing resources and create new ones. SAS already has an endowment from the Mellon Foundation that generates fellowships for young humanists outside of Penn. In the future, they will apply to the Humanities Forum with proposals related to the year's theme; when funding permits, senior scholars outside Penn will do the same. In addition, Penn humanists will be affiliated with the Forum as leave fellows, receiving a research fund and participating in the Forum's weekly meetings. The year's theme ("human nature" is the one scheduled for 1999-2000) would be the subject of a team-taught course for undergraduates and graduate students, and the city's cultural institutions could reflect it in exhibitions, lectures, and educational programming.

To improve communication across the humanities, the Forum will serve departments and programs as a clearing house for extra-curricular (and occasionally curricular) activities. It will help to publicize lectures and conferences and coordinate their dates and rooms. This administrative convenience should lead to more collaboration among departments, who currently plan their programming with little concern for each other. The ideal would be a single "calendar of the Penn humanities season," available on the web and advertised across the city and to neighboring colleges. Though this goal is perhaps utopian, even some coordination would be better than the current situation of a thousand flowers blooming in a thousand secret gardens.

The Forum's outreach would be aimed in three directions: toward nonhumanistic disciplines and professional schools at Penn, toward secondary educators and students in the area, and toward the general audience for cultural activities in Philadelphia. With the professions, our goal is to create an awareness of the value of humanistic culture in an environment where the ethos tilts toward applied knowledge. We believe that our research and pedagogy have direct bearing on that going on elsewhere in Arts and Sciences as well as in Wharton, Law, Medicine, Engineering, and, obviously, Fine Arts and Communications. Collaboration between humanists and scholars in these schools could produce valuable discoveries on both sides. As for public education, we are concerned at how little benefit the secondary schools derive from the presence of the distinguished humanities faculty at Penn. The Forum would wherever possible open its programs to teachers and strive to introduce secondary students to the pleasures of humanistic learning. It would plan at least one major program per year to involve the general community, with aspects designed specifically for the schools.

For example, in a pilot program (less interdisciplinary than those to follow), the Forum will sponsor a Celebration of Philadelphia Writers, March 26-27, 1999. This event will take place on both the Penn campus and in venues in the City (the Free Library, the Clef Club, the American Philosophical Association, the Library Company, the Rosenbach Rare Book Library, cafes, buses, WHYY, WXPN), and is intended to make Penn and the city aware of the richness of Philadelphia's current and past literary achievements. An important part of the Celebration will be a competition for the best writing about Philadelphia by high school students, with the winners reading their work along with established writers. We hope as well to encourage teachers to offer a unit on the history of the city's literature to all their students. Each year, the Forum will design such a program, bringing the humanistic topic set for the year to the attention of the entire community.

The Forum will thus have many beneficiaries. But perhaps most fundamentally, it will provide a situation in which humanities professors and students can put their ideas and values to work. Sharing their research in a rich conversation, learning from those outside their field, translating the life of the mind into benefit for the community: these are possibilities that would turn Penn from one of the strongest human-ities groups in the country into a pathbreaking humanitistic force. There is no humanities center set up to do what this one will, for the Forum will be reinventing the very meaning of academic humanism.

Dr. Steiner is the Richard L. Fisher Professor and Chair of English in the School of Arts and Sciences

and Director of the new Penn Humanities Forum.

Almanac, Vol. 45, No. 5, September 29, 1998