[Views on the new Rockefeller Foundation Division of Humanities]
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1930-10-27 (October 27, 1930)
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"Rockefeller Man" in Brazil and Europe, 1919-1930
Box Number: 12
Folder Number: 2
Oct 27 1930
AG on Humanities
I should like to present as record of my own convictions arguments against the continuance of a division of the Humanities
within the RF.
In presenting such arguments it is necessary first to state what I understand to be explicit and implicit in the existence
in the RF of a division or group concerned with the Humanities. As I understand such a group both from its record up to now
and its probable organization in the future, it would
a) attempt to aid in the study and/or preservation and/or further advancement of the arts, literatures, or other expressions
of the spirit of man in various regions or races or historical periods of mankind
b) be a part of the RF and therefore in some degree be associated with the already existing groups of IHD, MS, SS and NS
c) not confine its interest to the United States of America
Against the inclusion of such interests in the RF and on the lines assumed above, a number of considerations appear to me
to be decisive, without however in any way implying that such interests as are usually called the humanities are in any way
undeserving of aid conceived and executed along entirely different lines and through organizations or individuals independent
of the RF. I must confess moreover that until my experience of living in Europe I would have welcomed the addition of a division
of the Humanities to the existent RF program.
The essential nature of scientific laws, and the validity of scientific knowledge lies admittedly in the high degree of constancy
with which these laws and facts can be verified objectively by observers widely separated either in time, space or sympathies.
The canons of artistic taste on the other hand, the laws of man, the arts and even the mores of different times and regions
are distinguished first by the intense subjective feelings they express (and sometimes produce in others), and second by
the impossibility of agreement between observers or appraisers in default of some means of objective verification. Discoveries,
for example, of the laws of the electromagnetic field or the etiology of malarial fever, have a constant and verifiable validity
and interest for Slav, Teuton, Latin and Oriental intellects without involving temperaments, mores, or spiritual integrity.
The same cannot be said of the work of French historians, Irish folklore, or the preservation of Chaldean art. All the subjects
in the field of the Humanities involve taste and subjective feelings or processes of evaluation and appreciation, in the attempt
to verify their significance. Philosophies sometime, literatures often, and most other art forms nearly always, have moreover
an infinitely complex and delicate integrity of spirit. Is the English judgment of an American artist more valid than the
American? If a Polish Commission were to support a school for crooning would we respect their evaluation of Rudy Valee? And
therein lies the danger to the RF of assuming the role of appraiser or judge of what should be aided within the Humanities.
It might be said we only help, we don't judge. It is self-delusion for us to regard the grants by an organization now
as widely known as the RF as aid only--they are more than aid, they are selections, and in some instances lethal decisions
that, of course unintentionally but none the less really, terminate alternative or competitive projects and causes.
Now, difficult as is the decision to neglect one form of scientific endeavor in favor of another, nevertheless both are at
least verifiable and understandable by our own staff charged with the responsibility of decision. But I do not agree that
decisions affecting the humanities are like decisions on scientific matters. Aid to the humanities may frequently involve
judgments upon forms of expression of the human spirit and evaluation of the taste of others, and I do not believe any board
can wisely assume the world-field nor the large power of the RF, in such matters. We should aid freedom and independence in
matters of aesthetic creation and appreciation by leaving responsibility to more modest and therefore more numerous and representative
supporters. How could one small group in any nation ever obtain the cultivation of spirit necessary to set the world as its
field, the humanities as its subjects, and important discriminations between individual or national aesthetic expressions
as its activity?
Let us look for a moment at Americans with European eyes, and here I paraphrase the opinions of two European friends who know
the RF well:
"An enviable people, rich, energetic, practical, youthfully idealistic, with the sciences rapidly improving. Gifted in
the knowledge of the humanities of Europeans? Tolerant, well-informed and reflective? A country of mature and catholic critics
of the arts? A land as rich in scholars and creative thinkers as it is in money? The best judges of what and how to aid in
European or Asiatic cultural activities? Well not yet. If they wish to help us with medical schools, with our science faculties,
with our departments of health, let us by all means consider their ideas or take their aid--their record of accomplishment
and their practical minds in these things prove them competent even if they are given to luxuries we can't afford. They
also know how to run libraries. But they don't usually master more than two of our languages, they cannot know what our
history, our arts, our literature really mean to us--there is no way to judge that from the outside. Of course if they give
us money to spend as we choose, that's very nice--they don't employ foreigners much--but why don't they stick
to what they know how to judge?"
So it goes, even when they do not refer to any fear of American culture and valuations overwhelming European civilization--the
fear which Andre Siegfried voices openly, and which is a real danger for Europe regardless of our blameless intentions.
"De gustibus non disputandum" is a precept of politeness, but as an observation it is exactly wrong for it is precisely
matters of taste (and not matters of scientific fact) that will always call for dispute--and the disputes would be none the
less if tastes were subsidized or neglected by the RF.
From quite another point of view, what mutual programs could a division of Humanities have with the other divisions of the
RF? What collaboration is possible, what mutual criticism between divisions could be well enough informed to be helpful? What
possible justification of the time spent, for example, by a public health expert or a plant physiologist in attempting to
discriminate in office conferences or informal consultation between proposals in Slavic iconography? Neither in subject matter
nor method of handling does a division of the Humanities belong, to anyone's advantage, in collaboration with three scientific
divisions which have found even their own fields so large that intensification and focusing of effort is planned.
A final argument is capable of being misunderstood as gross materialism. But in the present world, with the exception of parts
of the United States, I would not consider the greater needs of mankind to be aesthetic and cultural. I used to think so when
I lived here, for my health and environment were agreeable and the immense grant in aid of bad taste given by mass production
made me rebellious against further "materialism". I know man cannot live on bread alone--but if we come to add to
the diet it is well to remember that one man's meat is another man's poison. Is it not true that throughout the world
there still are more people and more nations possessing a culture to which our money could add but little and yet lacking
scientific knowledge which we are qualified and invited to aid, than people well advanced in scientific knowledge who would
consider us as competent judges of their cultural needs? The funds of the Foundation, the example of its policy, and the judgment
and energies of its officers, are needed and welcomed in the advancement of useful, demonstrable, indubitable, scientific
knowledge. The very surplus of wealth and the creation of the Foundation by which we are enabled even to consider these questions,
was based upon economic and social organization and a knowledge of natural sciences, and the promise seen in the application
of medical knowledge to human welfare. "All criticism is a form of autobiography"--and from my experience I cannot
consider spiritual quickening or aesthetic gratification as being the primal need "for the wellbeing of mankind",
in a world of men still as expensively ignorant of their bodies, minds, and physical environment as they quite remarkably