Helping to Make Life Worth Living : Humanities Council Has Contributed to Culture for 10 Years

Times Staff Writer

Preparing a history of the California Council for the Humanities as it marks its 10th year, Executive Director James Quay noted that an eighth-grade participant in a council project had provided him with the best definition he has yet heard: “The humanities are the study of the things you look forward to living for.”

The Congress, in establishing the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1964, was a bit wordier, defining the humanities as “history, philosophy, languages, literature, linguistics, archaeology, jurisprudence, history and criticism of the arts, ethics, comparative religion, and those aspects of the social sciences employing historical or philosophical approaches.”

Specific Projects

Dr. Walter Capps, professor of religious studies at UC Santa Barbara and chairman of both the California Council and the national Federation of Humanities Councils, admits that he still stumbles over definitions, preferring to talk about specific projects, explaining without apology of the humanities: “It’s really miscellany, I think.”


But Capps has no hesitation in talking about why the council, a government-funded organization whose decisions are made by private citizens, is important in its role as benefactor to grant-seekers ranging from the World Without War Council of Northern California to the Grand Jurors Assn. of Los Angeles:

“It’s important because it stimulates discussion within the communities about issues that are vital to the health of a democratic society . . . it encourages people to come to terms with the histories and heritages of local communities and of ethnic groups. That’s really the purpose, to disseminate the humanities in the community and provide public access to the intellectual traditions of our society.”

Said Quay, “We’ve been mistaken for the humane society, for humanitarianism, secular humanism. . . .”

The council will celebrate its 10 years of contributions to California’s history and cultural life at a banquet Thursday night in the Huntington Library, San Marino. Honorees will be Robert O. Anderson, chairman of the board of Atlantic Richfield Co. and a longtime participant in civic, educational and cultural affairs, and Maxine Hong Kingston, the California writer whose first book, “The Woman Warrior,” the story of her Chinese-American girlhood, won the National Book Critics’ Circle award as best nonfiction work of 1976.

Humanities Lecture

Art Seidenbaum, Opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times and a member of the California Council for the Humanities from 1977-81, will deliver the 1985 California Humanities Lecture. This lecture series was inaugurated in 1983 to honor supporters of the humanities.

The banquet will be an occasion, partly, for reminiscing. Some will remember the council’s first meeting, on May 28, 1975, when five humanities scholars, five academic administrators, a labor leader, a writer and a museum board member met in the office of the president, University of San Francisco, to sift through 466 grant proposals. These were the first applications submitted to the fledgling council.


Eight hours later, the decisions had been made: The council had made 10 grants, totaling nearly $90,000. Within the next decade, 800 projects would receive grants. This year, to date, the council has awarded 46 grants with $310,000 outright in federal funds and another $230,000 pledged in matching funds.

Recent grants have gone to such diverse applicants as the Asian-American Studies Center, UCLA, for a conference to study the historical background of the mass internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and to Open Channel of Santa Cruz County for production of a documentary film, “Miss or Myth?,” focusing on the 1985 Miss California and counter-culture “Myth California” pageants to examine the role of beauty pageants in contemporary society.

The council has funded a film, to be broadcast on PBS stations, on the cultural impact of rhythm and blues music, a weekend with Shakespeare for 20 secondary school teachers, a conference on “Children of Interracial Families” and a three-day colloquium to bring together scholars of Ezra Pound.

Walter Capps, who will remain as chairman through February, will have served five years (his term was extended to assure his eligibility as president of the national federation of councils) but the established term is four years. Members serve without compensation, meeting quarterly.

“There is no such thing as a typical humanities project,” director Quay said. The pursuit of community in California continues to be an underlying theme with the council--the uniqueness of those communities, the shaping of the traditional disciplines to the California culture.

Recently, the council funded a social history of Los Angeles, 11 lectures sponsored by Beyond Baroque in Venice and designed to dispel some of the myths perpetuated by real estate agents and tour leaders. A council-funded series of radio broadcasts, scheduled to be heard in Los Angeles in 1986, will explore Spanish-English bilingualism.


The council is independent, nonpartisan and nonpolitical. Its funding is from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which expects $140 million for fiscal 1986, of which 20% will be divided among 50 state councils and those in Puerto Rico, Washington and the Virgin Islands. In addition, the California council receives contributions from private and corporate foundations.

As an ongoing project, the council funds California Times, a radio program that examines public and social issues from the humanities perspective. Its audience is estimated at 200,000 on 44 public and commercial radio stations statewide. Headquartered in San Francisco, the council has a second office in Los Angeles.

A goal, as stated on the first application form in 1975, remains. At that time it was stated: “The humanities become stagnant, academic and pedantic when they are removed entirely from the concerns and realities of modern life; modern life becomes that much more haphazard when it is removed from the sense of past endeavors, present values and future goals.”

Quay said, “There are some people who think once you leave school, that’s really it. The council exists to disprove that.”