NEH Grants: Humanities in the Public Square


Humanities in the Public Square

Deadline June 24, 2015 for Projects Beginning January 2016

Award Info:  Up to $300,000 for the one-year project period;  applications requesting >$150,000 should aim to implement an ambitious project with a broad geographic reach and potential to engage large audience through extensive collaborations or a large number of venues.   Smaller projects focused on local communities an smaller audiences are strongly encouraged.

Summary The Humanities in the Public Square program supports scholarly forums, public discussions, and educational resources related to the themes of a new NEH initiative, The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square.

Designed to demonstrate the vital role that humanities ideas can play in our civic life, the Humanities in the Public Square program invites projects that draw on humanities scholarship to engage the public in understanding some of today’s most challenging issues and pressing concerns. As NEH launches a year-long celebration of its fiftieth anniversary in September 2015, the Common Good initiative seeks to demonstrate the vital role that the humanities can play in our public life. NEH’s enabling legislation speaks eloquently of the need to attend to “the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.” Today, as our country grapples with both remarkable opportunities and extraordinary challenges, the “conditions of our national life” suggest that this need is greater than ever.

The Common Good initiative envisions humanities scholars and organizations turning their attention and expertise to topics that have widespread resonance with the American people and that lend themselves to humanistic methods and concerns. Organizations are encouraged to think creatively about what discussion topics would be meaningful to their community. A list of questions that exemplify promising subjects might include the following:

  • How can the humanities illuminate both the positive and worrisome ways in which the remarkable advances in information technology are affecting individuals and communities in contemporary American life?
  • How can the humanities enrich the debate over the appropriate balance of security and privacy that technological advances have placed before us?
  • How can the humanities deepen public understanding of the meaning of democratic citizenship in the twenty-first century in relationship to our founding principles and values, our political history, and our current circumstances?
  • How can the humanities contribute to the understanding of the relationships between humans and the natural world?
  • How can the humanities illuminate the legacies of recent wars and conflicts and contribute to the achievement of a deeper and broader public understanding of the experience and lessons of war? (For more details, see NEH’s Standing Together initiative.)
  • How can the humanities contribute to the full incorporation of veterans into civilian life and help all of us appreciate their unique perspectives? (For more details see NEH’s Standing Together initiative.)
  • How can the humanities assist the country in addressing the challenges and opportunities created by the changing demographics in many American communities?
  • How can the humanities illuminate the enormous promise of new biomedical technologies and procedures and deepen our understanding of the complex ethical and personal questions they raise?
  • How can the humanities address the various forms of cultural and political polarization that have become so prevalent in contemporary American life and thereby contribute to the building of new forms of community and understanding?

The Humanities in the Public Square program, a key part of the Common Good initiative, welcomes projects addressing a significant humanities theme that is important to a particular community, region, or state. The theme may be based on one of the questions above or it may address another significant public issue that is informed by the humanities in ways that will appeal to public audiences and concerns.

The project should consist of

  1. a public forum that engages scholars and humanities practitioners in discussion with a public audience about a theme;
  2. subsequent public programs that would use creative formats to engage audiences in reflection on and discussion of a humanities theme for an extended period of time; and
  3. educational resources that disseminate materials for ongoing use by teachers, students, and/or lifelong learners.

Applicants are strongly encouraged to forge partnerships with other institutions as appropriate (especially state humanities councils), to ensure that the scholarly, public programming, and educational elements are all well-conceived and realized. More information on state humanities councils is available here.


Contact the staff of NEH’s Division of Public Programs at 202-606-8269 or Hearing-impaired applicants can contact NEH via TDD at 1-866-372-2930.

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Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog: A Literary Treatment of the Traveling Schlemiel (Part II)

Originally posted on The Home of Schlemiel Theory:


Since he is in constant motion, Saul Bellow’s schlemiel, Moses Herzog can’t hold on to things. He moves from place to place, from memory to memory, and from slow motion to speed. His narrative can turn on a dime.

Things move through him, too:

With me, money is not a medium. It passes through me – taxes, insurance, mortgage, child support, rent, legal fees. (31)

After mentioning these flows, he notes that his cab is stuck in traffic, in the “garment district,” the hub of business in NYC.

But in this sedentary state, he is overwhelmed by movement coming from outside of him, in: “electric machines” that “thundered in the lofts.” Their power makes the “whole street quiver.”   And the “street was plunged, drowned in the waves of thunder.”

His world, inside and out, is a series of flows or what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call “lines of…

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Syracuse Canal Street Walk

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After dropping off the car at the mechanic, I knocked around Canal, Water, and Erie on a walk from Beech Street back over and then up the hill to the University. As the street names suggest, the Erie Canal used to roll through here on its way through Syracuse before it got filled in by the roadwork. I want to say that there’s a broken dignity to the place. People used to work here.

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Spring Night Flowering

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Out the other night with the dog, taking pictures of flowering trees and flowers. Me that is, not the dog.

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Iconic Letters & “Meaningless” Prayer (Pillar of Prayer)


It came across my desk and I thought I should read Meanchem Kallus’ translation of the Pillar of Prayer (Amud ha’Tefilah). It’s a loosely organized anthology of sayings attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, but it seems that it was his student, Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye who put it together. I might be getting this wrong, and if so I’ll make the necessary corrections to this post. To tell the truth, I did not know what I was expecting to find in it; probably a little chasidus. Turns out that I read it in Hebrew years ago. The precise contents proceeded to merge into a general sense of Hasidic piety, and then promptly I forgot having read the thing by the time I went and picked up the translation. Most likely what I picked out reading it this time differed from the more general sense that I read the first time around.

What caught me this time was the notion of non-semantic prayer, namely prayer that remains meaningless in terms of strict semantic content or meaning. This, of course, makes sense if one is talking about a community in which there are/were many members ignorant of the semantic content of the Hebrew prayer. In the Pillar of Prayer, there is virtually no attention paid to the meaning or “interpretation” of this or that prayer or set of prayers. The center of attention is not the prayer as an entire construct. It’s not even the sentence as a unit of meaning. It’s the word itself, in strict isolation, and the letter, as a graphic, let’s call it iconic form, that matters or means

First the word. The person at  prayer is told to put one’s entire power, physical and mental, into the single word, to make the word luminous and to divest it of “corporeality.” The single word is the locus of God’s indwelling presence or Shechinah. Then there’s the letter, the conception of whose form seems atomistic. “I heard from my maser and grandfather [the Besht], that ‘letters’ in and of themselves, are devoid of meaning” (#8). Indeed, the proper pronunciation of Torah is not as important as the intention one brings to it. By definition, of course, the meaning of the isolated letter has to be non-semantic or meaningless. It’s just a letter, hardly even a sound (all by itself, the individual letter would constitute at best half a sound or a stutter). These letters will, of course combine with other letters, but viewed in isolation, they are divested of sound and sense.

Without sound, the single letter would have to stand out as a meditative device that is visual in character, but without the semantic content. Not entirely unlike an “idol,” its primary meaning is iconodulic, a locus of God in the world. Indeed, God, as the place of the world, is held up as the essence (and object?) of one’s vision. One’s looking at God is as if one’s looking at another person, and that other person is looking at you. One should think of God, who sustains the world, surrounding the person, contracted into one’s speech. We’re always walking around within or inside God (#42.3-#42.4).

As ritual theorists have begun to recognize, in religion and religious studies, “meaning” and “interpretation” are completely overrated concepts. From the form of the letter to complete illumination, the vision’s ultimately acosmic. Divested of corporeality, divested of a separate self or sense of self in its non-separation with God, the person no longer knows if he or she is in this world or not. In the state of complete cleaving, there’s no grasped and no grasper (#73.4). Again, what comes to the core is the non-semantic experience. If not “meaningless,” the whole thing, God’s saturation of the letter and then this absorption of the dematerialized self into God, is ultimately unworldly and without any intelligible meaning whatsoever.

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(Melancholic Thoughts) Aharon Lichtenstein (z”l)


I hesitate to post this because it’s going to sound mean spirited. This week has seen the passing of Aaron Lichtenstein –an American educated student of Joseph Soloveitchik and  co-founder of Yeshivat Gush Etzion in the West Bank, and a major figure in liberal-dovish religious Zionism. Devoted to the whole Land of Israel, he also promoted peace and genuine compromise with the Palestinian people. My friend Shaul wanted me to post something about Lichtenstein’s impact on progressive Jews, but my own thoughts are lachrymose. Here was a great and towering figure of modern Judaism, whose passing means actually next to if not absolutely nothing outside the modern orthodox circuit. Unlike Leibowitz or Steinsaltz or Soloveithchik, he left almost no mark on the larger Jewish community, including progressive Jews, secular Jews, Reform Jews, and Conservative Jews. While I cannot speak for Israelis or for women, I suspect that this represents a failure of modern orthodoxy to make a real difference vis-a-vis the larger Jewish body politic. My own sense was that he never spoke to us, and not certainly for us. Perhaps because Lichtenstein disappeared into Gush Etzion. For those who went to study with him, the force of his impact was enormous; but only for them.

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Holy Days Crown Heights Riot (Reading Lis Harris, Jean Baudrillard, and Anna Deavere Smith)

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Last week my American Judaism grad seminar, we read Lis Harris’ Holy Days, a mid 1980s chronicle about her explorations into the Lubavitch community. We read her text along with Haym Soloveitchik’s “Rupture and Transformation,” and passages from Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations as a way to interrogate critically and sympathetically the appearance of “the real” in relation to religion and to the semblance of tradition. Harris performs the transition between secular and religious worlds, artificially constructed and almost bubble like in character. But worlds collide. With some time to kill at the end of class, we turned on the computer-projector and watched segments from Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror, about the Crown Heights riots. A hard watch. What I find interesting is how all these works fit into the same basic time and piece around the mid 1980s and early 1990s, that time when religion and spirituality make their way into the popular, mid-brow, and highbrow American vernaculars, pressed by conditions defined by postmodernism, identity, and race.

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