A Time to Listen and a Time to Speak Out
If the turbulence of 2020 has proven anything, it is the vital importance of humanistic study. Whether we are deciding whom to honor in our public spaces, considering how to recompense for human suffering, or weighing facts against conspiracy theory, we need humanistic skills and perspectives.
Humanistic knowledge anchors social justice activism – as exemplified by the founders of Black Lives Matter, who followed in the footsteps of many civil rights leaders in their choices to major in history, sociology and anthropology, religious studies and philosophy. In recent months, we’ve seen many embrace the work of renowned historian Ibram X. Kendi – in particular, his arguments about what it means to be anti-racist. As he points out, the heartbeat of racism is denial: denial of history, the damage done by prejudice, the blatant or buried intent of policy on education, criminal justice, and other key elements of collective life.
This year is a time for reflection and action. While we are proud of so much ACLS has achieved over the past century, we like other institutions are also heeding the call for healthy self-examination. We are committed to ensuring that our fellowship programs, advocacy, and policy work grow out of principles of equity and inclusive excellence as well as our belief in the essential value of humanistic scholarship.
As part of our strategic priorities, ACLS has taken significant steps in this area this summer. In August we started work with Hyphens & Spaces, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting firm who are helping us build our own anti-racism agenda, better support efforts by our member institutions in this area, and refine our own practices and policies to assure alignment with it.
An essential element of this work: listening. We will listen to our member societies and institutions, our staff, our fellows, our partners, and other allies about the most urgent needs of the academy during and after COVID-19 and what a strong and sustainable future looks like. Hyphens & Spaces will work with us in capturing these perspectives.
On September 30, I look forward to co-moderating a virtual conversation on race and racism with Alondra Nelson, the President of Social Science Research Council. We will hear from Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and Bianca Williams, professor of anthropology at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. One advantage of living on Zoom is that I can encourage all of you to participate in this important discussion without worrying about fire laws or your travel to New York. Please join us!
ACLS is also proudly raising our voice in advocating for the humanities and social sciences during these fiscally uncertain times for many colleges and universities. Most recently, we joined dozens of learned societies, academic organizations, and other allies in creating and promoting a joint statement calling on college and university administrators to keep in mind the essential role of humanistic study as they make tough budgetary choices this academic year. We plan to do more such advocacy in the coming year, and we encourage members of our community to join us.
There is much more to come in the coming weeks and months. I find that nothing inspires me more than the work of our fellows. In the meantime, I encourage you to share your thoughts on these and other areas of our work.
At a moment when eloquence and imagination seem both urgently needed and (at least in public discourse) in short supply, I think of Shelley, who famously called poets “the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration,” “the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present,” “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” If his images here are furious and bitter, his hope is irrepressible.
By Percy Bysshe Shelley
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.