Reflecting on the Purpose of the Humanities and Drawing Personal Connections
By Petra DeWitt, Chair Board of Directors, Missouri Humanities Council
As I take on the tasks of Chair of the Board of Directors for the Missouri Humanities Council, I reflect on our mission – “to enrich lives and strengthen communities by connecting Missourians with the people, places and ideas that shape our state” – and the purpose of the humanities – the tracing of human activity, the development of societies, and what it means to be human. The Missouri Humanities’ four main guiding priorities; 1) Providing Innovative Programming; 2) Expanding Connections; 3) Increasing Operational Effectiveness; and 4) Expanding Cultural Heritage Tourism will be our continued focus for 2023 and thus fulfill our mission and purpose. At the same time, I am recognizing my deep connections to the humanities as a professional historian, educator, American citizen on German birth, and wife of a Missouri veteran.
I initially became involved with Missouri Humanities through its German Heritage Corridor Initiative as a member of its planning committee. It made sense for me to do that since I am a scholar of Missouri’s German American history and an immigrant from Germany. Since my initial involvement, I have become more aware of how deeply I am connected to the humanities and the state of Missouri through the many programs that Missouri Humanities offers to the state’s population.
One of Missouri Humanities’ many innovative programs is the “Eat, Think, & Be Merry” signature series, consisting of panel discussions and podcasts, that brings people together around the common interest of food. Sharing nourishment with other people tells us much about who we are and how we perceive other. For example, I am constantly astonished by how many variations of barbecue exist and how each version represents the pride and culture of a particular region or city in this vast nation, including the state of Missouri where the barbecue sauce in St. Louis is more vinegar forward than in Kansas City which has its own style of a more sweet, tangy, and thick sauce. The “Small Town Showcase” program, consisting of a video, podcast, and article in our publication, MoHumanities, provides communities with the opportunity to share their history and how they relate to larger society. Having lived in the small town of Houston in Texas County for nearly thirty years before moving to Rolla, I appreciate the shared beliefs and traditions of a close-knit community and how these values are still valid now that I live in a “large city.” Both of the afore-mentioned programs have expanded connections between Missourians, have highlighted the unique aspects of living in this beautiful state, and shared the values that unite us rather than divide us.
Education is another method for the Missouri Humanities to bring together people of various economic, social, political, and ethnic backgrounds. Our cultural heritage programs not only focus on preserving the traditions and legacies of German immigrants, Native Americans, the rural way of life, and the Civil War, but also on teaching the history of these individuals and historic events. As a professor in the history department at Missouri S&T, I encourage my students to recognize the actors of the past as real human beings who made decisions within the context of their own time. We might think today that some of their behavior is abhorrent but when viewed through the lens of the past we can see societal, economic, or political circumstances that explain why individuals made decisions that had negative or positive outcomes. We, thus, have the opportunity to learn lessons from the past and the ability to not repeat the mistakes of our ancestors. The cultural heritage programs offered by Missouri Humanities, including the new “Show Me Archaeology” podcast, help us to do that outside of the classroom, as well.
For the purpose of evaluation what it means to be human, Missouri Humanities has established several programs for veterans and their families to share their experiences, including writing workshops and the “Proud to Be” podcast. As the wife of a Vietnam veteran, who passed away five years ago from complications related to Parkinson’s disease, most likely due to exposure to Agent Orange, I look forward with anticipation each year to the newest edition of Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors. Through poems, prose, and photographs veterans share their thoughts and experiences and we, the readers, can become more aware of individual and quite personal contributions to our country’s collective military experience.
In conclusion, my personal connections to the humanities as an educator, professional historian, American of German birth, and spouse of a veteran have existed long before I joined the Board of Directors of the Missouri Humanities but have become much stronger since I became involved with the organization. As the Board’s new chair, I will work closely with the Executive Director of the Missouri Humanities Council, Ashley Beard-Fosnow, to help carry out the purpose of the humanities, fulfill Missouri Humanities strategic mission, and tell the stories of the people who make this a great state.
Petra DeWitt is an Associate Professor in the history department at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Missouri. Her book, Degrees of Allegiance: Harassment and Loyalty in Missouri’s German-American Community during World War I won the 2012 Missouri History Book Award from the State Historical Society of Missouri. Her newest book, The Missouri Home Guard: Protecting the Home Front during the Great War will be released in November 2022 by the University of Missouri Press.