Anniversaries are special occasions. They are moments for organizations to think about origins, accomplishments, and the future. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS).
Beginning in the wake of World War I, the ACLS sought to revive and expand the intellectual communities that were shattered by the war. In an era when much of the focus was on the sciences, this agency recognized the importance of the humanities studies. Our learned society, the American Sociological Association, beginning in 1905, was one of the initial societies that took on the task of advocating for the humanities and humanistic social sciences. In 2019, there are 75 member societies.
Early philanthropy helped this new institution give grants and expand the humanities. The humanists played a pivotal role during World War II, both in language-teaching, area studies when few scholars thought beyond the United States and Europe, and the Preservation of Cultural Treasures in War Areas. The ACLS supported the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965. Currently, the ACLS is the nation’s major source of research fellowships in the humanities.
Today we take the infrastructure for our discipline for granted—one that supports the field and growth in new areas of knowledge. Yet, the origins were fragile. Participating in ACLS events, I’ve come to see how many learned societies face important milestones and challenges at a time when technologies have changed how we do business.
The ACLS meeting began at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (New York), housed in the Old Customs House at One Bowling Green, renovated in 1907 for many purposes, including the National Archives for NYC. On April 26, we celebrated Pauline Yu, who is stepping down as the President of ACLS after 16 years. Traditionally ACLS grants fellowships for dissertation research, early career, and to established scholars to advance knowledge in a range of fields of study. During Pauline Yu’s tenure, the ACLS has worked on expanding outreach for area studies, community college faculty, digital projects and supporting humanities scholars working with non-profit organizations. The evening speakers used humor, poetry, and perplexing prose to both celebrate Pauline and document how ACLS funds aided pivotal moments of their careers. Their talks deepened my own grasp of the work of the ACLS and the many roles that scholars play in interpreting the past, exploring the challenges we now face, and making connections around the world.
On Friday, the report from the ACLS President Yu included a conversation with Joy Connolly, who will serve as the new President beginning July 1. Professor Connolly is a recognized scholar of Greek and Roman literature and political thought. Her commitment of knowledge for the public good and efforts at innovative education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York makes her an excellent candidate for taking ACLS into its’ second century. The conversation was a nice way of introducing her to the membership.
There were micro reports from members of Learned Societies, which is an opportunity to learn about the challenges and directions of other humanities groups. One of the high points of the morning was presentation from scholars who received ACLS fellowships. The presenters’ highlighted new themes and methods in humanities research, including the development of a digital archive for transgender studies.
The luncheon speaker was Jon Parrish Peede, Senior Deputy Chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities. He spoke firmly about the value of the humanities and recognized the many careers of humanists in the arts and cultural sector. While he acknowledged the manufactured tension between the humanities and the sciences, he stressed the importance of the two fields learning more about each other.
The breakout groups enabled participants to share their own experiences with central issues in the field. The final panel, presented by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, highlighted 50 years of changes in scholarly communications. This included not only the electronic availability of journals via JSTOR, but how teaching, learning, and sharing is reshaped with new means of communicating.
Friday evening concluded with the Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecture, which is named for the first chairman of the ACLS. Lynn Hunt delivered the 2019 “A Life of Learning” lecture. She grew up in Minnesota and attended Carleton College, which was close to home, before pursuing further degrees at Stanford University. She recognized her advantages as a baby boomer, who came of age during an era of affordable higher education. Now a Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA, she talked about her intellectual development, which motivated her to learn French to understand the French Revolution, history, and how people construct the past. The holder of many honors and positions in learned societies, Hunt talked about how she was touched by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s.