When the American Academy of Arts and Sciences makes the case for federal support for the public humanities in its Heart of the Matter report, it relies on arguments about the potential for civic engagement. AAAS contends, for example, that the humanities encourage “civic vigor” and prepare citizens to be “voters, jurors, and consumers.” A recent report by the Kettering Foundation agreed, calling civic engagement the focus of the state humanities councils.
But this hasn’t always been the case. When the state councils were created, they were mandated to utilize the humanities to understand and shape public policy. As we know, historians did something similar in creating the field of public history. Spurred by the academic job crisis, PhD historians worked for federal and state government agencies, created lobbying organizations for history, and partnered with humanities councils. By examining the shift from public policy to civic engagement in the public humanities, we can begin to write a genealogy of civic engagement, which has become, over the last two decades, a catchphrase repeated in endless grant applications and mission statements. What do we mean by it? A Google search on “definition of civic engagement” turns up more than 29,000 results. Skim those and it quickly becomes apparent that when you’ve read one definition of civic engagement, you’ve read one definition of civic engagement. Continue reading