The Importance of Humanities Programming In Strengthening Communities

Wayne Flynt, Emeritus professor of history at Auburn University and recipient of the 1991 Alabama Humanities Award, recently published his memoir with the University of Alabama Press titled Keeping the Faith: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives. In it he describes Auburn’s work—often through AHF’s vital support—in reaching out to the state’s communities through public programming in the humanities. Here, we bring you an excerpt from Keeping the Faith:

“My own contribution to outreach probably received more recognition than it deserved because others were due most of the credit for our success. Nevertheless, in 1989, I received a University Extension Certificate of Merit. That same year, the Alabama Humanities Foundation (AHF) asked me to write a piece to celebrate its fifteenth anniversary, centering on the work of AHF in strengthening community life through public programming. Despite a variety of deadlines, I agreed. “Habits of the Heart in the Heart of Dixie” was my attempt to place AHF’s outreach effort into broad social context.

Rural and small town migration patterns, urban complexity, and the atomization of American life threatened venerable traditions of community life. Books as divergent as The Different Drum:  Community Making and Peace by psychiatrist M. Scott Peck and Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Community in American Life by Robert N. Bellah and others had placed the issue front and center on the nation’s agenda.

The age of air conditioners, the disappearance of front porches, the decline of church revivals, and the vanishing court and market days were locking us into progressively smaller cubicles, rooms, offices, and other stifling spaces, largely away from one another. Folks no longer learned so easily about the needs of others. Modern society might produce less small town gossip and petty intrigue. But it most certainly contained less neighborliness and willingness to be bothered by someone else’s troubles. This pulling away from community, this decreasing ability to connect meaningfully, to share important common symbols, had fractured and weakened social relationships and communal identity.

Rebuilding a sense of community is no easy matter. It first requires explaining what it means to be human. Such definitions emerge from religion, philosophy, literature, music, art, drama, speech, and history. This public redefinition requires that practitioners of the humanities occasionally take leave of their classrooms, where many of their seeds fall on the hard, sterile ground of career-building and degree-chasing anyway (or sometimes on adolescents not even that serious). We have to engage the community of adults who do not take our importance for granted. The larger community is not so much hostile to us as it is preoccupied with more urgent concerns: earning a living; nurturing families; preserving neighborhoods; coping with divorce, sickness, and death. Ordinary people do not perceive that humanists (a term they generally don’t understand anyway) have much to contribute to their prosaic comings and goings, their quality of life, or the stability of the places where they live. Nor do we make much effort to persuade them of our relevance. Our efforts in AHF, Auburn’s History and Heritage Festivals, Reading Alabama, and other Humanities Center programs had been but halting first steps at opening that dialogue.”

How has humanities programming touched your life?