Look anywhere in our society, he said, and you see the need for thoughtful, informed dialogue – in politics, race relations, technology, scientific advance, the legacy of war and conflict, environmental issues, to name a few.
"It's time for humanists to very deliberately and more powerfully re-engage the public realm and speak in publicly accessible ways," he said.
Too often, Adams said, the humanities are discussed in contrast to the natural sciences and the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, a dichotomy he argues against. The sciences need the humanities, he said, and vice versa.
"We need to move beyond our preoccupation with vocations and STEM ... and re-engage the idea of the whole person," Adams said.
There's plenty of science going on in art conservation, for example, as you can see in the research of UD's Richard Wolbers, associate professor, coordinator of science and affiliated paintings conservator. Wolbers is developing cleaning systems for complex fine art materials – most recently for the Delacroix Chapel in the Church of Saint Sulpice in Paris – and microscopically applied techniques.
And there is good cause for informing the scientific endeavor with the habits of mind formed in the study of humanities.
"The stakes are very high in science and technology," Adams said. "There are questions of value and meaning that science and technology almost inevitably raise."
But there is "substantial pressure" on humanities programs in every educational setting in the country, he said.
"The irony of all this, even as this pressure builds, is that we as a country are besieged by challenges that require humanities understanding," he said.
As an example, he pointed to the extraordinary scientific breakthroughs in genetics technology, specifically the CRISPR-Cas9 technology that allows scientists to edit the entire human genome.
"It raises all kinds of questions," Adams said. "And we are in a very problematic period with regard to race and race relations. This is an issue for you and the entire country. If ever there was a question that needed the humanities it is race."
The NEH has had great impact since its creation by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, with support for:
• 29,000 research fellowships;
• 1,900 film, television, and radio documentaries;
• About 5,300 projects preserving materials, collections, and resources;
• More than 4,000 seminars about 85,000 college faculty and high school teachers; and
• 161 grants to the University of Delaware for a total of about $10 million.
Among those grants to UD are several new projects that Adams referenced, including:
• $30,000 to UD's Department of Art Conservation to support a visit to Cuba for exchange of methods and practices centered on the preservation of photographic materials, that will be led by Debra Hess Norris, chair and professor of the department, Unidel Henry Francis du Pont Chair of Fine Arts, director of the Winterthur/UD Program in Art Conservation and interim associate dean for the humanities.
• $75,000 for UD's Colored Conventions Project to transcribe the minutes of African-American conventions from the 1830s to the 1890s. The project is directed by Gabrielle Foreman, Ned B. Allen Professor of English and professor of history and black American studies.
• $121,907 to support the UD Library's work on the National Digital Newspaper Program, which aims to make thousands of early newspaper editions available in digital form.
• $350,000 in matching funds to support a "Next Generation PhD" implementation grant to recruit and train doctoral students in African American public humanities for a broad range of careers in the cultural heritage industry. Ann Ardis, senior vice provost for graduate and professional education and director of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Interdisciplinary Humanities Research Center, is a primary investigator for this pilot project, and Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Blue and Gold Professor of Black American Studies and History is the inaugural program director.
"Even in this stressful time, I am buoyed by the incredible richness I see in the humanities – particularly in places like the University of Delaware," Adams said.