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‘How do the humanities figure in a socially just world?’: A Q&A with Phillip Brian Harper, Program Director for Higher Learning, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

February 24, 2022

Headshot_Phillip_Brian_Harper_mellon_foundationPhillip Brian Harper joined the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in October 2020 as program director for the new Higher Education grantmamking area. As part of the foundation’s new strategy to prioritize social justice in all of its grantmaking, the program supports inclusive humanities education and diverse learning environments, with a focus on historically underserved populations, including nontraditional and incarcerated students. In January 2022, the foundation announced grants totaling $16.1 million to 12 liberal arts colleges in support of social justice-oriented curricular development in the humanities.

A literary scholar and cultural critic, Harper previously served as dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University and, prior to that, taught at Harvard University and Brandeis University. He is the author of Framing the Margins: The Social Logic of Postmodern Culture (1994); Are We Not Men? Masculine Anxiety and the Problem of African-American Identity (1996); Private Affairs: Critical Ventures in the Culture of Social Relations (1999); and Abstractionist Aesthetics: Artistic Form and Social Critique in African American Culture (2015).

PND asked Harper about the Humanities for All Times initiative, the role of a humanities education in advancing social justice, and the insights he brings to those philanthropic efforts as an academic and a writer.

Philanthropy News Digest: The grants awarded through the Humanities for All Times initiative will support curricula “that both instruct students in methods of humanities practice and clearly demonstrate those methods’ relevance to broader social justice pursuits.” Can you give an example of what such a curriculum might include?

Phillip Brian Harper: Yes, it would include courses that not only familiarize students with certain bodies of knowledge that are relevant to humanities inquiry—accessible, for instance, through a specific set of texts or in a particular archive—but also consciously and explicitly train students in humanities methods for conducting research and analysis on relevant materials: archival investigation, textual interpretation, oral history interviewing, etc.

Furthermore, it would provide students with some concrete demonstration of how those methods can be put to use in real-world social justice work. To give an example, one of the institutions that has received a Humanities for All Times grant, Austin College, will establish 18 different “humanities labs,” each of which would focus on a pressing social justice challenge—for instance, contestations over the definition of U.S. citizenship, appropriate modes of historical memorialization, or medical ethics questions raised by the COVID-19 pandemic—and deploy humanities methods in exploring potential solutions to it....

Read the full Q&A with Phillip Brian Harper, Program Director for Higher Learning, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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