This year, the Kenan Institute for Ethics welcomes Geoffrey Harpham as a new visiting scholar and senior fellow. Trained as a literary scholar, Harpham most recently served as the president and director of the National Humanities Center, based in Research Triangle Park, from 2003-2015. We recently asked Harpham about his transition to Duke and plans with the Institute.
What drew you to Duke University and to the Kenan Institute for Ethics in particular?
Since coming to this area in 2003, I’ve grown to love it and to feel at home here. I’ve come to know many Duke faculty who were Fellows at the National Humanities Center, in addition to President Brodhead, who serves on the Board of Trustees of the National Humanities Center. And my son is a 2010 Duke graduate who and served for three years as a Young Trustee. So I already had many connections to Duke, and was very pleased to have the opportunity to join the faculty. The Kenan Institute for Ethics probably fits me better than a traditional department. I’ve always been interested in the subject of ethics, and have written a good deal on the relation of ethics to literary study. But my interests have broadened since I was an English professor at Tulane and Penn, and the Kenan Institute, which has a more diverse and worldly mission than most academic departments, enables me to explore a wider range of issues than I would in any other setting.
What are some of the projects or aspects of your work here that excite you?
Right now I’m teaching a wonderful group of students in the “American Experience” cluster of the freshman Focus Program. It’s a course called “American Dilemmas” that explores a series of issues in American life—self-reliance, education, wealth and inequality, race, sex, and justice—by looking at novels, social science, films and other kinds of material. Right now, we’re in the “Self-Reliance” part of the syllabus, which includes Emerson’s essay by that name, parts of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the classic Gary Cooper movie High Noon, and the famous—or infamous—book by Stanley Milgram called Obedience to Authority. In the spring, I’ll be teaching an Ethics course called “Narrative and Moral Crisis.” Ethics is an excellent focus for an undergraduate seminar-style class because discussions of the course material can provoke the kind of personal reflection that is so valuable a part of the college experience.
I believe that education itself should be an ethical experience, that it should help people think about what they value and why. The humanities can, I think, foster this kind of experience more effectively than other disciplines, because their subject matter is the archive of human creative activity, which reveals human cares and concerns. There is no better mirror than the past.
In what ways do you anticipate that your work with the National Humanities Center will enrich your academic work here at Duke and at the Institute?
First, the experience of having worldly responsibility for the health and growth of an institution, through the lean years as well as the fat, has given me a real appreciation for the institutions that survive, and
for the leaders who see to it that they do. Secondly, the fact that my institution was dedicated to the humanities meant our support had to come from just a few friendly foundations and individuals. I was always trying to enlarge the circle, of course, but my main concern was to make the argument for the humanities and for my institution in a way that those few people could understand and value. Directness, clarity, and commitment were the primary virtues, not subtlety, cleverness, or erudition. Interestingly, the individuals I found myself speaking to were often quite idealistic about the academy, education, and especially about the humanities.
In a university setting, idealism is often taken as a sign of naïveté, but I came to believe that it often reflected a deeper kind of wisdom, one that had to be understood and respected, not just because we depend on those people for their support, but also because education is an idealistic undertaking, one that engages our hopes for the future. In my work at Duke and at Kenan, I’ll try to communicate this sense of things.