In June, 2020, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which calls itself the “largest supporter of the arts and humanities in the U.S.,” announced that it would be putting a new focus on social justice in its grantmaking.

Now, the foundation is weaving together its humanities and social justice priorities in a new initiative called Humanities for All Times. The initiative will provide over $16 million in awards to 12 liberal arts colleges to support “newly developed curricula that both instruct students in methods of humanities practice and clearly demonstrate those methods’ relevance to broader social justice pursuits.”

With roughly $6.6 billion in assets, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is a stalwart and generous supporter of American arts and culture. The foundation’s increased emphasis on social justice has led to ambitious initiatives, like the Monuments Project, which seeks to reevaluate and reshape the landscape of monuments in the U.S.

In its higher ed giving, Mellon is working to increase college access for underserved communities, emphasizing diversity and supporting projects that explore neglected areas of history, as we have reported. In response to COVID-19, Mellon boosted its giving to support artists, arts institutions, and colleges and universities. And this year, through a program called Creatives Rebuild New York, the foundation teamed up with other funders to provide monthly monetary support for New York artists.

The Humanities for All Times program, according to Mellon’s President Elizabeth Alexander, “will support students and faculty at these 12 liberal arts colleges as they go about the good hard work of wrestling with ideas and knowledge that help us understand societal challenges and contribute to positive change.”

Where humanities and social justice intersect

“Given that Mellon is an arts and humanities funder, and also now a social justice foundation, we are always looking for ways that work in the humanities and work toward social justice can intersect.” said Phillip Brian Harper, who directs Mellon’s Higher Learning program, when asked how the new project came about.

Harper, a literary scholar and cultural critic who was dean of NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Science before he took the job at Mellon, is steeped in the humanities. He’s dismayed by a steady drop in the number of students pursuing humanities majors and degrees.

Harper believes colleges aren’t doing enough to inform students about the many concrete skills that a humanities degree imparts—skills that potential employers clearly want and need. People often point to critical thinking and ethics, Harper says, which are important, but pursuing the humanities develops other important talents, as well. He ticked off some examples: the ability to analyze texts and discourses, to conduct research, to conduct oral histories and ethnographic interviews, to conduct immersive ethnographic research, and visual literacy.

Harper provided an example of how humanities skills can help build a more equitable society. “Many people today are interested in our society achieving a more just distribution of resources and wealth and well-being,” he said. “But none of those objectives can be worked toward and certainly not realized if we don’t first understand the conditions that led to our current situation. And being able to understand those conditions is exactly what tools drawn from the humanities enable us to do,” adding, “If we don’t understand and consider critically the ways that human beings have made decisions in the past and their implications for the present—which is a very specific humanities skill—then we’re going to be hampered in our attempts to rectify injustices.”

Harper also pointed to research demonstrating another trend among today’s college students: growing interest and commitment to social justice issues.

Humanities for All Times seeks to address both developments. “We know that students are interested, more than ever, in social justice,” Harper said. “And we know that they are looking for skills in their education that they can bring to real-world situations. Let’s show them how the humanities gives them concrete skills—not just to take out into the world at large, but that they can apply to social justice endeavors.”

For Humanities for All Times, Mellon’s Higher Learning team invited 50 liberal arts colleges to submit up to three proposals each. The team prioritized institutions that demonstrated a commitment not only to the humanities, but to the racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity of both their students and faculty. The response, according to Harper, was “very, very powerful.” A jury of humanities scholars selected the 12 winning proposals.

Down the Mississippi and into the streets of L.A.

The selected colleges all presented different proposals, including a project that will explore and revitalize Native languages, and a “Humanities Lab” that will focus on abolition (see complete list).

One grantee, Macalester College in Minnesota, will explore the Mississippi River watershed. According to Harper, the place-based humanities curriculum will examine sites along the river and research both their history and contemporary issues, including the Native American tribes that inhabited the region, slavery, environmental degradation and its differential impacts, socio-economic stratification, and trade. At the end of the semester, students will take a canoe trip down the river to visit the sites they studied and meet with community-based organizations working there.

Occidental College in Los Angeles, another grantee, is developing a program called “Humanities for Just Communities,” which takes a more urban focus. Working with local community-based organizations, the program will use humanities tools to examine health equity, migrant justice and civil rights issues.

Making the case for humanities 

Can the Mellon Foundation and projects like Humanities for All Times make an impact in an era when STEM predominates—not only on college campuses, but in the minds of many funders? For Harper, this, too, is a matter of social justice. “Humanities are not only a tool in the promotion of social justice,” he said. “They are an aspect of social justice, as well.”

Lower-income students often gravitate to majors considered most likely to lead to employment, making humanities a luxury that many students feel they cannot afford.

“In a socially just world, as many people as possible would have access to the insights that the humanities provide,” Harper said. “That’s another thing that’s important about these projects: We’re hoping they will attract students who otherwise might not have studied the humanities. We hope to broaden the reach of the humanities and promote social justice in that way as well.”