The University Record, October 1, 1997

Campaign for Michigan - Over the Top at 1,371,837,199!

Speakers 'cautiously optimistic' about humanities funding

Tisch (right) joined by wife Joan and daughter Laurie (middle) at the humanities symposium. Photo by Bob Kalmbach

By Debbie Gilbert
News and Information Services

Preston Robert Tisch and his family, the generous donors of Tisch Hall and the Tisch Tennis Building, heard a range of views about "The Future of the Humanities" at a symposium in their honor last week˜views that ranged from concern to hopefulness.

The speakers were John H. D'Arms, president of the American Council of Learned Societies and former dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies; Linda K. Gregerson, associate professor of English and director of the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing; and Thomas R. Trautmann, the Mary Fair Croushore Professor and director of the Institute for the Humanities ( The symposium, held Sept. 25 in Rackham Amphitheater, was part of the Campaign for Michigan celebration.

Within half an hour, the Tisches and the audience heard D'Arms briskly lay out the facts of a 30-year downward trend in funding for the humanities, and conclude on a cheerier note about the possibility for future funding improvements. They also heard Gregerson hail the "intellectual intoxication" from Europe that blew through the humanities in the 1970s, intoxication that often degenerated into raucous departmental conflicts but has now metamorphosed into "productive disagreements." And finally, Trautmann, sounding a tongue-in-cheek alarm about "The Trouble in Tisch Hall," discussed the evolving nature of the study of history as it swings between a humanistic endeavor and a social science discipline.

"Having been president of the American Council of Learned Societies for just 24 days, my national perspective on the future of the humanities may fall short," D'Arms said, "but I can offer a perspective on funding trends over the past 30 years." His own research indicates that there has been a 50 percent decline in humanities funding by the National Endowment for the Humanities since 1975. Major foundations such as Ford and Rockefeller also have retreated, and much of what they do fund targets the visual and performing arts. Worse yet, funding from providers of individual fellowships, such as the Guggenheim Foundation, has declined by 40 percent.

But it is not all bad news, D'Arms said with "cautious optimism." The Carnegie Foundation may be renewing support to the humanities and the Education, Media and Culture division of the Ford Foundation may focus anew on the humanities and related social sciences. And, he said, individual gifts like the Tisches', are invaluable and "register a great vote of confidence in the humanities."

Gregerson was even more optimistic about the humanities. "From where I sit, the view looks very good indeed. Powerful and heartening work appears on every hand in the disciplines I follow. [Unlike the 1980s and late 1970s] disagreements are productive again. It is never pure and simple, as historians are the first to teach us. It is nonsense to imagine that one archival or analytical method, one sense of the question can stand˜let alone progress˜without the others."

Trautmann, also was also optimistic about the future. "The boundaries of the humanities are elastic and the place of history is ambiguous. History belongs to the humanities in some contexts and to the social sciences in other contexts, based on whether it is deemed `fuzzy-wuzzy' or `nutsy-boltsy.'"




Photos by Bob Kalmbach

Trautmann compared the controversies inside two Tisch Hall departments˜English and history˜and found that English is being pulled in the direction of the New Historicism and history is being pulled in the direction of the English department by what is called the "Linguistic Turn." "When older members of these departments complain that they are being invaded by aliens, in fact, the new forces are nothing but the people next door."

The moral of it all, Trautmann said, is "Don't panic. It is important that we remain calm and keep our cool in times of turmoil." Over time, he said, what goes around comes around. Eventually we will see the return of an aesthetic focus to literature and of a social focus to history. And then things will change all over again.

And to the Tisches, he pointed out that they should not be alarmed if they hear raised voices in Tisch Hall. "As someone has said, the University is a place for people to disagree in. The `Trouble in Tisch' is, in fact, just business as usual."