Humanities program forges link between faculty and the people of North Carolina

Ask history professor Lloyd Kramer why he got involved with the Program in the Humanities and Human Values, and he will give two answers, each inexorably bound to the other.

The first is the late Richard Soloway, the former chair of Carolina’s history department who helped recruit Kramer to Carolina in 1986 and would become one of his mentors.

The second is the French Revolution – one of Kramer’s areas of specialty along with European intellectual history.

Kramer spoke at his first Adventures in Ideas seminar – about Paris – in 1987, and he was called upon repeatedly over the next two years to give additional lectures for the program as the 1989 bicentennial of the French Revolution neared.

Kramer has no doubt that Soloway, who was also heavily involved with the program, referred him to the program’s longtime director, Warren Nord.

As the years went by, Kramer would go on to fill both men’s shoes – serving nine years as chair of the history department and, as of July 1, becoming the program’s first faculty director.

The two had big shoes to fill, said Kramer, who explained that his new role in this part-time position augments Max Owre’s administrative role as the program’s full-time executive director.

When the Program in the Humanities began on Oct. 1, 1979, Nord and his tiny staff operated from a cramped office in Caldwell Hall, but the program now operates with a talented, diverse group of seven people out of larger offices off of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The early program fused two fledgling initiatives into one – the first an outreach program in the humanities created by the UNC Extension Division in 1978, the second an effort by the College of Arts and Sciences to create summer seminars in the humanities geared toward alumni.

Nord was a protégé of Maynard Adams, a former Kenan professor in philosophy and chair of the faculty, who believed strongly in the public value of humanistic knowledge.

“He therefore envisioned the program as a means to convey how the humanities bring essential perspectives to public life,” Kramer said.

“Adams was also among those who believed that UNC-Chapel Hill, as a public university, needed to have a program that was specifically set up as a conduit, a go-between for people within the University to speak to audiences on the outside.”

It fell to Nord, who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1978 and wrote his dissertation under Adams’ direction, to carry out Adams’ vision, Kramer said.

For 25 years, Nord served as the program’s director. Under his leadership, the program sponsored more than 700 seminars, conferences and workshops attended by more than 40,000 participants.

In recent years, under the leadership of directors Wayne Pond and Eve Duffy, thousands more have participated, Kramer said, including public school teachers and alumni from all parts of North Carolina.

Since its inception, the program has been predicated on the idea that knowledge of the humanities – from history to philosophy to literature to the performing arts – equips people to be better citizens of a democracy, Kramer said. That bedrock commitment remains as strong and vital as ever.

“As part of that vision, the program has been a part of the University’s conversation with the people of the state of North Carolina for nearly 40 years,” Kramer said. “We want that conversation to continue. And we want more people to join in.”

One of Kramer’s goals as the program’s first faculty director is to recruit more faculty – and especially young faculty – into the program, just as he was once recruited. With his connections to faculty in virtually every discipline across campus, Kramer said, he wants to expand the program’s reach, both inside and outside the University.

“One of the purposes of the program is to help each rising generation of Carolina faculty to connect with people outside the University so they can appreciate what we gain as professors from getting to know the citizens of this state,” he said, “and on the other side, to allow people across the state to get to know us.

“For many people, college professors may seem aloof or remote or far away – until they get to know us. When people get together, they discover that they have a lot to talk about and learn from each other.”

Through these connections, misunderstandings can melt away, Kramer said.

Aside from the public dimension of the program in helping to shape stronger citizenship, there will always be a deep, profound personal dimension to the humanities that will be served as well, Kramer said.

“It really comes down to the question of what is the meaning of your life and what kind of life is important for you to live,” he said. “Does it mean making a lot of money? Does it mean becoming famous? Does it mean that you are professionally successful? Does it mean that you have a loving family?”

The process of answering these fundamental questions begins with not accepting other people’s definitions of what that life should be, Kramer said.

“At the same time, you need other people, and the knowledge they can share with you. And that’s why this program matters.”

And it is why, Kramer said, he not only is honored to serve as the program’s faculty director, but to continue on as a regular speaker as well.

“I love to discuss ideas with everyone who is trying to understand our lives and our world,” Kramer said, “so I want to continue these conversations as the humanities program develops new, creative exchanges in the coming years.”

This past weekend, he lectured on the topic “Did Elections Become Democratic in the Age of the American and French Revolutions?” and on Oct. 18 he will speak on “Politics, Commerce and Culture in the Early Modern Dutch Republic.”

To learn more about the program, see humanities.unc.edu.

By Gary Moss, University Gazette

Published October 17, 2014