Dr. William D. Adams, known to many by his distinctive nickname, Bro Adams, is the 10th Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. A native of Birmingham, Michigan, Adams earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy at Colorado College and a PhD from the University of California at Santa Cruz History of Consciousness Program. He studied in France as a Fulbright Fellow just before his career in higher education took flight with university appointments to teach political philosophy. He came to coordinate the Great Works in Western Culture program at his alma mater, the University of California at Santa Cruz, before serving as Vice President of Wesleyan University and then President of Bucknell University. In 2000, Dr. Adams was appointed President of Colby College and oversaw the largest capital campaign in Maine’s history including the expansion of the Colby College Museum of Art. With the gift of the Lunder Collection of American Art, the creation of a center for arts and humanities in addition to a film studies program were made possible, along with the expansion of the curriculum to include creative writing. Bro Adams has proven to be a lifelong proponent of positive change in the world, with a profound interest in philosophy, art, and most certainly, the humanities.
This summer, Dr. Adams lectured on his study of Maurice Merleau-Ponty to IDSVA students in Aix-en-Provence during their summer residency. Cohort ’15 student, Zoma Wallace, interviewed him at the headquarters of the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, DC.
ZW: I do want to first ask you how you became involved with IDSVA?
BA: Well, Lauren, my wife, met George. I think they met the summer that I was in France in 2013. She said, “You’ve got to meet George and Amy.” We went to dinner together in Portland and we saw each other subsequently in a couple of settings. When I became chairman of NEH, I went to Boston and he introduced me to some of the faculty of IDSVA. We started to communicate about a potential name for developing the presidential program there, and it kind of evolved from there. I was interested and am interested in IDSVA because of my interest in both philosophy and art theory. I think the school is such an interesting model and trying to do an interesting thing. So, I am sympathetic to the mission.
ZW: Next time I have the opportunity, I have to thank your wife for making that connection. I had the privilege of attending your lecture in Aix this summer and I would like to know how Merleau-Ponty and Cezanne came into your sphere of interest?
BA: I have been thinking a lot about this because I am writing about it. I first read Merleau-Ponty in the fall of 1969, as an undergraduate student at Colorado College, and I had just come home from Vietnam. I was in a lot of personal turmoil and the country was in a lot of turmoil about Vietnam. And I had become interested in philosophy while I was in the Army. So I enrolled in a course offered by a well-known philosopher there named Glenn Gray, who was a Heidegger scholar, and knew the terrain of 20th century phenomenology and existentialism. I took a small seminar with him, of maybe 8 people, and we read the existentialists including Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty. And I remember that first reading of Merleau-Ponty. I was dumbstruck, and fascinated, and confused… I mean I still find him challenging; very difficult in a sort of irritating but magnetic way.
ZW: That reminds me of how you described Merleau-Ponty and his interest in Descartes.
BA: My struggle with Merleau-Ponty is how elusive he is. I don’t think Merleau-Ponty found Descartes elusive. I think he found him maddening, but also deeply interesting. By contrast, I did not find Merleau-Ponty maddening in the same way; I found him frustrating because he is so hard to understand and so vague, but also very magnetic. I kept reading him throughout my time as an undergraduate and then in graduate school at the University of California at Santa Cruz. When the time came for me to figure out what my dissertation would be, I decided to write a contemporary dissertation on Merleau-Ponty. At the same time I applied for a Fulbright Fellowship. To my astonishment, I got the fellowship and went to Paris in 1977. I spent the whole year there reading about, and around, and in Merleau-Ponty, French history, and French philosophy. I attended lectures, as I was there at an extraordinary time; in that golden age of contemporary French philosophy when Michel Foucault was lecturing, and Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. They were all there in Paris and all accessible. So I spent the year there in that heady environment and came back ready to write the dissertation. But at the same time, I wasn’t initially interested in Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetics. I was more interested in his political thinking and his social philosophy. However, I remember a special exhibit of Cézanne at the Jeu de Paume, in Paris. I went and saw the show and was blown away by it. I came back and I wrote the dissertation, and by the time I had finished the dissertation, I realized that the part of Merleau-Ponty that I found most interesting and most moving was his very late work. That very late work was most influenced by aesthetic thinking where he was most engaged with the issue of vision and the visible, and even the invisible, which became the name of the book he was working on when he died. And then I had a long detour… and became a college administrator and then President of Colby College.
In 2011, I was reading a review in the New Yorker by art critic Peter Schjeldahl, of a show that had just opened at the Met. The show was built around Cézanne’s series of Card Players. He did not like the exhibit and he admitted that he did not particularly like Cézanne. But as I read that review, an idea came into my head about writing a book about Merleau-Ponty and Cézanne that would be centered in Provence. It would be simultaneously about the landscape, those two figures, and my own experiences in France. With the genesis of the book idea I got deeply engaged in Cézanne and started reading everything I could get my hands on about him. I read the biographies, all of his letters, and I started to go look… to pursue this idea. I went to France in 2013, and went to Aix, and to Le Tholonet. I was there all summer; pounding away at the countryside, taking walks while contemplating his motifs, thinking about him and Merleau-Ponty, and working on chapter outlines. I returned to Colby, ready to retire and write this book…and then I became the chairman of NEH (with laughter). So that all got deferred a little bit. But I kept my hand in it and kept reading. And I have learned a lot more about Cézanne being here in Washington. Giving the lecture in Aix was a good opportunity to consolidate my thinking. So, it’s a long story… now a forty- or fifty-year story.
ZW: You mentioned Colby College and Cohort ’14 is there now. Although you humbly spoke of your relationship to the museum, it was you that brought it to the level that it is today. I feel that in hindsight, we can look at an event or past work to find something happening at the same time in our lives that echo or support that work. Where were you in life or was there something motivating as you worked to expand Colby and its museum?
BA: Well, some of it was serendipity. When I showed up at Colby, I found that the museum was quite remarkable and had huge potential. The other piece of serendipity was that there was a Colby couple who had a long association with the college, and had been very prominent collectors for three or four decades at that point; collecting mostly American Art. Peter and Paula Lunder were close to the college and had a remarkable private collection. I became aware early on that there had been talk of this collection coming to Colby, but the Lunders had decided to hold off, to see who the next president would be. Over time I became close to them, but there was a period of waiting and testing, to see what I was going to do with the museum. What I thought and what I saw - which is relevant to IDSVA- was an opportunity to use the museum as a way to deeply embed art, art history, and the experience of art into the undergraduate curriculum at Colby; not as a sideline but as a core element. So it was the educational prospect that interested me most. It was not, “Build a great museum,” which to me was secondary. It was, “Build a great museum so that you can build a great curriculum.” For an undergraduate institution, I think that is the only way you can proceed. Colby is not a university, so its only reasons for being are the students and the educational program. Although it was not the experience that I first imagined at Colby, it became a really big part of my experience, both professionally and personally. Personally because it got me interested in art in a new way. I was exposed to the art market and exposed to artists including people like Alex Katz, Chuck Close, Sol Lewitt, Richard Serra. All were among pieces of art in the collection that came to us. And I became, little by little, more fluent as I became more interested. So it’s a big part of my life now and I go to museums very often. Washington is a great city for art.
ZW: Yes it is. I had the chance to view your address entitled “Wicked Problems” at the University of California at Santa Cruz. That phrasing is perfectly matched with some of the issues that challenge us as humans. I wonder if there are particular humanistic or philosophical thoughts and ideas that have stuck with you in the work that you do or offer insight for us all to look to for solutions.
BA: Yes, the thing I talked about in that speech and what I think about a lot is the way in which the educational system in this country is becoming narrowed and one-dimensional with the exclusion of the arts and the humanities as core elements of the educational experience. Whether we are talking about grade school, or high school, or colleges and universities, the aperture of the way we think about education is shutting down, and what is being shut out is really the language of experience. The humanities, in many ways, are language of experience, having to do with the way in which we experience the world; which is very much related to Merleau-Ponty. In the way we actually inhabit and experience the world, the humanities flow from that embodied life. Whether we are talking about literature, history, anthropology, or art history, it is about the way we experience the world. Art and artists are generating experiential forms…of being in the word and perceiving the world. Art is a different language from the humanities but very much related in the sense that, as Merleau-Ponty says, “[The visual arts] are about the way we inhabit and have the world visually.” So I think the through-line in all of this for me is how we think about culture and how we think about education. And what is happening to our culture. I think that culture is becoming overwhelmed by questions of technique and questions of technology and all of the ramifications of technology. This is not a new idea. Merleau-Ponty posed the sharp observation in his essay “Eye and Mind” that if the only language we have to describe the world is in science, it flattens things, and eviscerates the complexity and fullness of things. Heidegger had the same preoccupation in a somewhat different way. So these are not new thoughts, but they reappear in our contemporary setting in new and different ways.
ZW: I would imagine that this figures prominently into your NEH initiative to support works and research focused on the common good.
BA: Yes, because I believe the humanities are essential to help us think about what is happening to us, and these big public questions. I have been meditating a lot -as I am sure you have along with many others- about race and race relations in this country and the really troubling place we are in. You cannot get a hold of that issue or really have an intelligent conversation about it unless you have a feeling for the history of race relations in this country. You just can’t. A lot of people are calling now for community conversations, which I think are terribly important. But what does it actually mean to sit down with people who do not agree about some of these things? What does the conversation look like or consist of? It has to consist partly in a discussion of that past and also must consist partly in a discussion of the ways in which we currently see the world; and the broad differences within the country between what we are all going through. And all of those things are basically humanities-laden topics. So it would be helpful if people knew their way around them a little bit. How do you talk about values? How do you talk about principles… or talk about your experience… or history? How do you talk about culture?
ZW: I would love to keep talking, but that really leads me to my last question about how you define cultural literacy.
BA: When I speak about cultural literacy, I speak of our ability to really understand one another in that deep terrain of what we ultimately value and care about; how we construct the world collectively for ourselves, what matters in it, and the way that we think about who we are collectively. Those are fundamental cultural questions. So literacy means being able to put together a picture of what you think and what other people think. People think different things. Look at immigration. There are people coming from Asia, Africa, South America, and all places in the world… So, what does it mean to have a political life, or social life, with people from other places? How do you develop a coherent narrative about what it means to be an American? I am not saying it is easy, because it is no simple thing. But cultural literacy is another dimension, and it involves humanities-based skills.