The Center for the Humanities

History

From the Center’s beginnings in 1993 to its current incarnation, we have expanded our activities to reflect the changing needs of The Graduate Center, CUNY, and the New York City communities we serve, while remaining true to our original mission. The Center has grown to run over 100 public programs each year which range from public conversations and conferences to academic seminars, poetry readings, book fairs, and art exhibitions. Free and open to the public, our programs and exhibitions aim to inspire sustained, engaged conversation and to forge an open and diverse intellectual community.

The Center for the Humanities is uniquely positioned at The Graduate Center to play a vital role in fostering new ideas in the arts, philosophy, politics, and the humanities in the 21st century. We are proud to host our public humanities initiative, the Mellon Seminar for Public Engagement and Collaborative Research and Seminars in the Humanities, to operate the press Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, and to have joined with the James Gallery in efforts to create dialogue across disciplines, CUNY, and the City.

Along with these new initiatives, we continue to foster long-standing programs that took root in the Center’s founding years. Under the leadership of Professor Morris Dickstein, The Center for the Humanities was inaugurated with a daylong symposium on The Humanities and the City in March 1994. This was followed a month later by Irving Howe and His World, a tribute to the late critic and CUNY professor, who had died the previous year. Spurred on by an annual gift from our first trustees, Henry and Edith Everett, the Center for the Humanities subsequently hosted tributes to Alfred Kazin in 1995, Michael Harrington in 1996, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1997, and Ralph Ellison in 1998. As with the Irving Howe event, these symposia concentrated not on the writers themselves but on current views of the subjects that most interested them: socialism, immigration, the American experience, the future of the welfare state, democracy, historiography, black culture, and letters.

These early events laid the groundwork for ongoing long-term projects, including the Irving Howe Lecture, generously endowed by Max Palevsky in memory of the literary critic, focusing on three of the subjects closest to Irving Howe’s heart: politics, Yiddish and Jewish culture, and the modern literary imagination; as well as the Stanley Burnshaw lecture, established by Professor Dickstein and hosted every other year by The Harry Ransom Center for Research in the Humanities at the University of Texas, Austin.

A word must be said about the most ambitious event organized by the Center in these early years, a two-day conference on The Revival of Pragmatism that brought together legal thinkers such as Richard Posner and Thomas Grey, philosophers like Hilary Putnam, Richard Bernstein, Stanley Cavell, Sidney Morgenbesser, and Richard Rorty, political theorists like Nancy Fraser and Alan Wolfe, intellectual historians such as John Patrick Diggins and Robert Westbrook, and literary critics like Richard Poirier, Stanley Fish, Louis Menand, and David Bromwich. The speakers included virtually everyone who had contributed to the lively conversation about American pragmatism in the 1980s and 1990s. The papers and discussions marked a major turn in recent cultural theory. Supplemented by half a dozen others, they were brought together in a large book, The Revival of Pragmatism (Duke University Press, 1998), edited with an introduction by Morris Dickstein.

In 2001, under the leadership of Professor David Nasaw, The Center for the Humanities received the first of three three-year grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to host annual “working groups” in the humanities. The Andrew W. Mellon Seminars in the Humanities, which bring together faculty and graduate students from many disciplines across the CUNY system to discuss their work, have formed the intellectual core of The Center for the Humanities. Out of these seminars have come conferences, a series of academic programs, and an expansion of the scope of our programs for the public. Our current Mellon Seminar theme is “Freedom."

In its ongoing mission to enrich intellectual exchange throughout CUNY, The Center for the Humanities developed two innovative programs, The Great Issues Forum and The Leon Levy Center for Biography, which have since grown in scope into major Graduate Center initiatives.

In 2007, The Center for the Humanities was given the honor of hosting The Great Issues Forum, funded by an award given by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to the Chancellor of the City University of New York, Matthew Goldstein. The Forum explored critical issues of our time through a single thematic lens. The inaugural theme was “Power,” followed by “Religion.” The Great Issues Forum hosted a series of high-profile, free, public conversations featuring artists, intellectuals, and policy makers, and an online seminar with prominent guest bloggers, distinguished faculty, and select graduate students. The Great Issues Forum is currently held under the auspices of the Office of Public Programs.

In 2007-2008, The Center for the Humanities solicited and received a grant to establish The Leon Levy Center for Biography. Founded to develop a fresh approach and bring new voices to the writing of biography, the LLCB’s mission is to encourage and support the connection between university-based and independent biographers working in print, film, visual arts, and other media. Through public programs, the LLCB also intends to stimulate public conversation about the role of biography in our time. For more information, visit leonlevycenterforbiography.org.

In 2008, through the generous endowment of Joanna S. Rose, The Center for the Humanities founded the Seminars in the Humanities. Organized by faculty and graduate students at The Graduate Center, these seminars offer sustained intellectual interaction to serious scholars around the city and across the world. Consistent with The Graduate Center’s emphasis on interdisciplinarity, the seminars explore subjects and themes in the humanities through shared readings and invited guests from a variety of disciplines. In many cases, seminar participants are working toward publication in extra-disciplinary fields and are seeking new intellectual perspectives. Each seminar has required reading and meets no less than five times a year. Every year since has brought a new crop of exciting seminar themes and speakers from around the country.

In 2010 and 2011, The Center for the Humanities published the first and second volumes of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative through the generous support of Margo Viscusi. Featuring unpublished materials by American poets and artists uncovered and edited by Graduate Center students and guest editors, with the guidance of Founding Editor Prof. Ammiel Alcalay, Lost & Found is developing into a major initiative that includes the successful Annual Chapbook Festival.

The Center for the Humanities is uniquely positioned at The Graduate Center to play an increasingly vital role in fostering new ideas in the arts, public policy, philosophy, politics, and the humanities in the 21st century. We are proud to support reasoned, open-minded debate between engaged practitioners and an informed public that is the hallmark of the humanities, and is ever more necessary as New York City and the United States connect with the global community. Visit one of our events today, and join the conversation.