Center for Humanities Celebrates 50 Years


At a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Center for the Humanities this fall, Professor of English and American Studies Sean McCann told a story about a dinner in 1967 honoring Paul Horgan, who was stepping down as the director of Wesleyan’s Center for Advanced Studies. Horgan had helped to gain national prestige for the Center—predecessor of the Center for the Humanities—but even at this zenith of accomplishment, undercurrents of discontent were building that would end in a wholesale reshaping of its structure and mission.


The evening featured guests in black tie at Olin Library gathered to celebrate the role of the Center in accomplishments ranging from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. The menu, McCann relates, featured cote de boeuf roti accompanied by Beaujolais Saint Louis 1962, followed by champagne and Horgan surpris. A string ensemble from the Hartt School of Music serenaded the guests.


Victor Butterfield, who had been president of Wesleyan since 1943, hosted the dinner. Butterfield created the Center in 1959, modeling it after the Princeton Center for Advanced Studies. Profits from My Weekly Reader enabled him to generously fund the Center with an annual budget of $231,000—equivalent to $1.35 million in 2009 dollars.


Built in a modernist style behind Russell House, the Center was intended to expose Wesleyan’s academic culture to the thinking of outside luminaries. Its founding was part of the same transformative impulse that drove Butterfield to establish the College of Letters and the College of Social Studies. These institutions advanced his desire to disrupt the entrenched academic departmental structure and curriculum. In a 1959 memo to faculty announcing the Center, Butterfield bemoaned “the cultural gap between the ‘intellectual’ and the ‘man of affairs.’ We feel that each of these types has much to learn from the other. . .and that the liberal institution should support the study of and writing of our ablest journalists, justices, ministers, industrialists, and the like.”


The Center succeeded magnificently in its goal of bringing distinguished men (mostly) and women to campus. With the aid of its first director, the late Professor of the Social Sciences Sigmund Neumann, followed by Pulitzer–Prize–winner writer Paul Horgan, the Center hosted 84 fellows in the decade of its existence. The roster included John Cage, C. P. Snow, Edmund Wilson, Carl Schorske, William Manchester, and Hannah Arendt, as well as “men of affairs” such as Alvin Hansen (often called the American Keynes), Paul Gray Hoffman (former president of the Ford Foundation), Leslie Munro (retired president of the UN General Assembly), and Herbert Matthews (a prominent New York Times editor).


The fellows were productive and generated a considerable amount of national press attention for Wesleyan through their accomplishments. For some, the opportunity to write and reflect without the constant pressures of normal life was welcome. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for instance, came to the Center from a demanding position in the Johnson administration and a humiliating defeat in a New York political campaign. “What I needed was freedom and disengagement, and the Center provided both to such an extent that I came to feel I had not known what either was until I arrived here,” he said.


Butterfield had established the Center as an antidote to insularity, but ironically, the campus community came to see the Center itself as insular and disengaged from university life. Although some fellows plunged themselves into the life of the university, many did not; nor were they required to mingle. The Center was a closed community walled off by invitation–only events. As early as 1964, an article in the Argus complained that the campus was receiving little benefit from luminaries holed up in their offices.


Horgan acknowledged as much in a memo to Butterfield: “?fellows are brought here to pursue their own works, offering informally whatever contribution they can make to the university to the extent that these do not impede their own projects. Secondly, it is an appendage rather than an integral part of the university, and its relations with faculty and students have been distant.”


John Cage poked fun at the Center’s culture. “The Center of the Center for Advanced Studies,” he said, “lies somewhere in the air–conditioning system. The air–conditioning system is essentially dehydrating. To avoid drying up, the fellows are obliged to drink a good deal.”


In 1967, the same year that Paul Horgan was feted, the junior faculty called for the abolition of the Center, as did a Study of Educational Policies and Programs. As McCann noted, the dinner for Horgan, in retrospect, “looks like a valedictory to an institution that, without realizing it, had just hit its high–water mark.” Within a year, plans would emerge to replace it with the Center for the Humanities.


This time around, with Edwin Etherington as president of Wesleyan, the faculty had a decisive hand in shaping the program. An ad hoc group of senior faculty covering all humanities departments vetted a proposal, which roundly rejected any hint that outside scholars might continue to provide the core intellectual community.


Instead, the Center for the Humanities was designed as an interdisciplinary venture primarily for Wesleyan faculty and selected students in the humanities and social sciences. All were expected to contribute to an annual theme. Benefits would accrue to the whole community through new courses that faculty might develop during their fellowship, as well as Monday evening seminars open to anyone with the desire, temerity, or curiosity to see wits matched at a high intellectual level.


As a rationale for the Center, a Humanities Advisory Subcommittee convened at the time noted that the humanities in general were suffering from increased specialization that did not contribute to “a common structure of knowledge.” The group observed that, “Discourse among humanists, even within the same field, tends to be thin as specialists speak to each other in smaller and smaller groups, through more and more journals and conferences.?And the relationship of the humanities to the general culture, so alive in the minds of the students, is ill represented in the structure of our professional apparatus and our curricula.”


The Center for the Humanities would surely produce research and discovery, but it would also act as “a corrective to our narrower professionalism and our cultural dispersion,” said the advisory group. One of the first publications associated with the new venture was the proceedings of a conference at the end of the decade titled Humanities in Revolution, edited by Ihab Hassan, professor of English and director of the Center during its inaugural year, 1969?70.


Hassan says that Butterfield, though retired, kept an office at the Center, “watching its development, tactfully unobtrusive.”


“The new Center for the Humanities took a slightly different turn,” he says. “It increased the participation of fellows, faculty, and students in its activities by offering more lectures, colloquia, seminars, and tutorials. Moreover, the fellows invited that first year appeared to have a more direct impact on their cultural moment than some earlier visitors. The new fellows included Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Norman O. Brown, Hayden White, Frank Kermode, Harold Rosenberg, Richard Poirier, David Daiches, and Leslie Fiedler. Would it be immodest to state that it was an exciting place and year?”


Four decades later, it seems safe to assert that the Center established an enduring model that has significantly enriched the intellectual life of the university. A recent article in Critical Inquiry credited the Center with being a “genuine pioneer” that became the prototype for hundreds of such centers across the country.


President Michael Roth ’78 was a student fellow at the Center and later founded the Scripps College Humanities Institute, which he modeled after his CHUM experience. “I often tell people that I found an intellectual home here at the Center for Humanities, and I’ve heard that same expression from dozens of scholars over the years,” he said at the conference.


Throughout the years, the Center has adapted to the varied intellectual life of the campus, according to Richard Vann, professor of history and letters emeritus and a former director of the Center. Vann brought well–known speakers to campus, and he says he was pleased that Monday night lectures at Russell House were regularly packed.


“Some of the undergraduate fellows were rather over–awed by the Center, but the very brightest and most self–confident learned a good deal and taught others as well.”


Jill Morawski, professor of psychology, is the current director of the Center. In her introduction to the 50th–anniversary conference, she noted that the Center has provided a temporary home to more than 100 postdoctoral fellows and visiting researchers, has given more than 200 faculty members the opportunity to study and develop new courses, has provided research experiences for hundreds of students, and continues to provide an intellectual forum open to the public.


The Center has lived through the culture wars, the science wars, the deconstruction of deconstruction, the rise and apparent fall of cultural studies, and six Wesleyan presidents, including acting presidents,” she said.


The conference was intended not only to celebrate the success of the Center for the Humanities, she noted, but also to provide for critical reflection on how the humanities have changed and what opportunities might guide the future. She characterized the humanities as having undergone “more than a decade of siege” and as having shriveled in comparison to the prestige and funding of the sciences. From within, the tension between specialization and interdisciplinary breadth remains, while a rethinking of what it means to be human, the emergence of animal studies, and upheaval from the digital revolution challenge ideas and methodology in the disciplines. The Center’s Monday night discussions are not about to run out of good material.


Early participants in the Center for Advanced Study might or might not recognize the Center for the Humanities as its evolutionary descendant, but Morawski suggests that they would undoubtedly feel at home with the “liberal, self–critical and experimental mood” that inspired the Center’s founding.




On Monday evenings the Center for the Humanities hosts a public lecture in Russell House, and while the themes for these lectures are sometimes abstruse, this year’s topic could not be more down to earth—“War.”


“War is an undeniably important—and perennial—part of the study of the human condition,” says Jill Morawski, director of the Center and professor of psychology. Humanist scholars have a long tradition of writing about war and war theory. Writers, artists, and musicians have made and continue to make war a subject of their creative work. In our time, new questions have arisen, such as: What constitutes war in an era when conventional clashes between large state actors are not the norm? When do wars end? What do the metaphors of war mean, such as “War on Terror” and “War on Drugs”? What are the representations of war in history and political theory?


The theme also has enabled her to reach out to public intellectuals, including some who might not ordinarily speak on campus. For instance, in April Isaiah Wilson III, Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and a faculty member at West Point, will discuss “Thinking Beyond War.” As a veteran, professor at a military academy, and scholar of the strategies of war, Lt. Col. Wilson will provide a perspective on war studies not typically explored in liberal arts institutions.


The spring series opened in January with Peter W. Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative and a senior fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institute. Recently named one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2009 by Foreign Policy magazine, he spoke about robots and war.


Meghan O’Sullivan, professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, will be examining U.S. foreign policy during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among several other speakers, Judith Herman, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an authority on post–traumatic stress disorder, will contribute an entirely different perspective by looking at “Justice from the Victim’s Perspective.”


The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s John E. Sawyer Seminars Program is supporting the year–long “War” program with a grant funding a postdoctoral fellow, 20 seminars, and short stays of 10 distinguished visiting scholars. Wesleyan’s new Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life is collaborating in this effort.


Although the mission of the Center for the Humanities remains fairly constant from year to year, individual directors put their own stamp on the program. Morawski, for instance, has focused on how to use the methods, theories, and skills of the humanities to probe contemporary or perennial human problems such as war or what it means to be human. This inclination reflects her study, as a psychologist, of the sophisticated tools that humanists use to understand problems in new and different ways.


The Center also functions as a space for people in different disciplines to share trade secrets, theoretical approaches, and methodological understandings unique to their disciplines. Humanistic problems, Morawski points out, cannot be understood through a single discipline. By bringing speakers from outside academia, including individuals with intellectual stature in government and the military, she harkens back to Victor Butterfield’s original desire that the Center mix the academic with more worldly affairs.


[To learn more about the Center and its lecture schedule, see]


Download a PDF of the complete article HERE