The Founding and Creation of the National Humanities Center | National Humanities Center

The Founding and Creation of the National Humanities Center

Roof schematics of the NHC, 1977.

The National Humanities Center was formed in the mid-1970s by what started as a tiny group: classicist Gregory Vlastos of Princeton University, medievalist Morton Bloomfield of Harvard University, and literary scholar M. H. Abrams of Cornell University. All three had been in residence at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, CA, in the mid-1960s, where they became convinced that the humanities needed a similar center dedicated to the needs of humanists. They persuaded the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to become involved as well as the American Council of Learned Societies, then under the leadership of Frederick Burkhardt. Planning groups were formed including, at one time or another, such notable figures as Robert Goheen, Daniel Bell, Lionel Trilling, Henry Nash Smith, Hannah Arendt, and Steven Marcus.

After some years of planning, ideas about a national center for the humanities began to coalesce and considerations turned to where it might be located. There were several competitors, but a small group of North Carolinians led by Governor Luther Hodges and Archibald “Archie” Davis, head of Wachovia Bank, took concrete measures. Davis was a particularly crucial figure because he had taken the lead in the creation of the Research Triangle Park in the late 1950s and, when he learned of the effort to establish a national center devoted to humanities research, became determined to secure it for the park.

Although the primary purpose of the park was to reorient the state’s economy around science and technology, it was always part of the vision to include other organizations devoted to knowledge production. In the mid-1970s, a portion of the park was set aside for the Triangle Universities Center for Advanced Studies, Incorporated (TUCASI) ensuring the involvement of Terry Sanford, president of Duke University, John Caldwell of North Carolina State University, and William C. Friday, president of the University of North Carolina system.

The Center opened for its first group of Fellows in the fall of 1978 under the leadership of philosopher Charles Frankel, the Center’s founding director. Frankel was succeeded by William Bennett, who served briefly before becoming the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the Reagan administration; Charles Blitzer, who went on to lead the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; W. Robert Connor, who subsequently led the Teagle Foundation for many years; and literary scholar Geoffrey Harpham.

Under current president and director, Robert D. Newman, the National Humanities Center continues to thrive and remains the only major independent institute for advanced study in the world dedicated to the humanities. Since its inception, over 1,500 Fellows have worked in residence here. Collectively, they have produced over 1,700 books, as well as numerous other scholarly works. Many of their books have not only won the most prestigious awards in their fields but helped shape thinking across disciplines. The Center also supports an extensive education program that helps support the work of millions of school teachers across the country with online materials, webinars, and other offerings that are vetted or conducted by former Fellows and other scholarly experts. In addition, the Center’s array of public engagement and advocacy efforts promotes the significance of the humanities as the foundation of a democratic culture, a fulfilling life, and an informed citizenry.

Steven Marcus at NHC construction site
Steven Marcus at the NHC construction site, 1978.

NHC groundbreaking
NHC groundbreaking ceremony. Left to right: John Chancellor, William C. Friday, and Terry Sanford.

About the Founders

Meyer H. “Mike” Abrams (1912–2015)

Literary critic Meyer H. (“Mike”) Abrams served as a member of the Department of English at Cornell University for 67 years. Author of The Mirror and the Lamp—named one of the 100 most important works of nonfiction of the twentieth century by the Modern Library—Abrams was also the founding editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. He was presented with the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama in 2014, at the age of 102.

Morton Bloomfield (1913–1987)

Harvard medievalist Bloomfield not only helped lay the groundwork for the Center but served as the first chairman of the Center’s board of trustees (1973–76). Considered “one of the truly great medieval scholars” of his generation, Professor Bloomfield was elected president of the Medieval Academy in 1973, was a fellow and former vice president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was a member of the Executive Council of the Modern Language Association.

Frederick Burkhardt (1913–2007)

A professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, then president of Bennington College in Vermont from 1947 to 1957, Burkhardt served as president of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) from 1957 to 1974, rescuing it from the brink of insolvency. As president of ACLS he also championed the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He also served as the editor of The Works of William James, a 19-volume edition completed in 1987, and as general editor of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, totalling 32 volumes.

Charles Frankel (1917–1979)

A longtime professor of philosophy at Columbia University, Charles Frankel stepped away from the university to serve as the first president of the National Humanities Center. He had previously served as Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs in the Johnson administration. As a public intellectual and scholar, Frankel eloquently advocated for the preservation of liberties in the Western world—freedom of speech, of the press, of worship and of other basic rights.

Robert F. Goheen (1919–2008)

Born in India, where his parents were missionaries, Robert Goheen started his academic career as a professor of classics at Princeton in 1950 before being selected as the university’s president in 1957, the youngest to serve in that role since the American Revolution. Goheen served as president until 1972, overseeing a massive expansion of the university with 38 new buildings and a 40% increase in the faculty to make Princeton a fully diversified research university. After stepping down in 1972, Goheen was named president of the Council on Foundations and was later appointed U.S. Ambassador to India by President Jimmy Carter.

Steven Marcus (1928–2018)

A Columbia University literature professor from 1956 to 2004, Steven Marcus transformed the field of literary criticism using Freudian psychoanalysis to examine characters in the novels of Charles Dickens and by applying critical analytic methods to Victorian pornography. In addition to his distinguished career as a scholar and academic leader, Marcus was instrumental in the conception of the realization of the Center, leading the Center’s planning committee and serving as chairman of the executive committee of the Center’s Board of Trustees from 1976 to 1980. After spending time as a Center Fellow from 1980 to 1982, Steven returned to serve on the Center’s Board of Trustees and remained actively engaged in numerous ways, helping nurture and guide the Center over the next four decades.

Henry Nash Smith (1906–1986)

A native Texan and noted scholar of the American West, Smith’s book Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950) helped found the American Studies movement in academia. A noted scholar of Mark Twain and editor of Twain’s papers, Smith taught at Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas at Austin, and at the University of Minnesota before joining the English Department of the University of California, Berkeley in 1953. Smith served as president of the Modern Language Association in 1969.

Gregory Vlastos (1907–1991)

A classicist and philosopher at Princeton University and the University of California, Berkeley, Gregory Vlastos employed the analytical techniques of modern philosophy to restate and evaluate the views of Plato and Socrates and is credited with bringing about a renaissance of interest in Plato among philosophers throughout the world. A Fellow at the National Humanities Center in 1980-81 and 1981-82, Vlastos was one of the original trio of scholars to conceive of a national center for the humanities and enlisted the involvement of Princeton president Robert F. Goheen to help bring that vision to fruition.

John Voss (1917–2008)

John Voss helped lead the creation of the National Humanities Center as an executive officer of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), a role in which he served from 1964 until 1986. Voss served as secretary-treasurer of the Center’s board of trustees from 1975 to 1992. A Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, John Voss taught history at Tufts University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked as a manager of special projects for Arthur D. Little, Inc. prior to joining the AAAS.