NEH Director Visits U.Va. to Celebrate Opening of Art Museum

September 11, 2009

September 14, 2009 — Jim Leach, director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, visited the University of Virginia on Thursday, his first official event since being appointed to the post by President Obama.

He toured the museum and the special exhibition, "Thomas Jefferson's Academical Village: The Creation of an Architectural Masterpiece," with curator and architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson, museum director Bruce Boucher, and Vice Provost for the Arts Elizabeth Turner; visited the Lawn; participated in an informal roundtable discussion with U.Va. NEH grant recipients and top academic administrators and faculty in the humanities; visited the U.Va. Library's Scholar's Lab, a hub of digital research and scholarship; and presented formal remarks to the Board of Visitors and members at private evening functions to celebrate the reopening of the museum.

His formal remarks follow:

"Is There an Inalienable Right to Curiosity?"
Sept. 10, 2009

President Casteen, faculty, and friends of the University of Virginia.

It is an honor to join in celebrating the re-opening of the Virginia Art Museum and the new exhibition "Thomas Jefferson's Academical Village."

Jefferson was the most erudite of our founders, matched in certain areas only by Franklin and Witherspoon. A student of history and philosophy, and almost anything else that could be read in an accessible book, Jefferson was influenced by the greatest foreign aid ever given a country – the ideas of the Enlightenment. The framework of his political thought borrowed particularly from two of Britain's most progressive thinkers, John Locke and David Hume.

In the context of Jefferson's love for this university and his authorship of the most powerful revolutionary document in history, I thought it might be adventuresome to posit another way of describing the meaning or perhaps the effect of the most compelling political phrase ever penned.

Jefferson, the wordsmith of American democracy, affirmed for posterity a trinity of inalienable rights: "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

The first two Creator-endowed rights that he stipulated in the Declaration – "life" and "liberty" – were derived from Locke, who had decreed a triad of rights: "life, liberty, and property." For Jefferson, the precept of private property was presumably implicit in the third, his most imaginative utterance – "pursuit of happiness"-- an obliquely expansive phrase co-opted, perhaps indirectly, from the writings of a somewhat obscure Swiss natural rights theorist named Burlamaqui.

On an almost daily basis in American jurisprudence judges render opinions which interpret laws and sometimes the meaning of the Constitution itself. Interpreting the Declaration of Independence is a less frequent venture for historians and political scientists in large measure because it was so well crafted and, as a revolutionary rather than governing document, so singular in purpose. Yet the philosophy it reflects holds meaning for peoples the world over. While the specific abuses of authority cited were specific to a time and place, the underpinning precepts that were asserted were universalist in meaning and application.

Just as the Constitution was designed to accommodate changing circumstance, the Declaration takes on new and in many ways profounder relevance as society evolves. It is a bedrock of values in a world where change and its acceleration are disruptive constants.

Accordingly, I would pose the question: Could what Jefferson affirmed be summarized or considered in effect as advocacy of an inalienable right to be curious and pursue curiosity?

By background, 99% or more of the people who ever lived on the planet by the end of the 18th Century could only reflect the social status and pursue as occupations whatever their parents did. Curiosity which may be a natural condition of children didn't apply expansively to adults because in their daily pursuits they had so few choices. Lack of education and social and economic immobility put pervasive constraints on the imagination.

While to my knowledge Jefferson never addressed the subject of curiosity, he himself was a living embodiment of an inquisitive mind. A right to be curious would have been a natural reflection of his own personality. After all, perhaps with a bit of exaggeration, it was said of this Virginian that he knew all the science that was known at the time. And as the exhibition opening today of his original drawings, prints, and letters commemorating his "academical village" demonstrates, he had a personal grasp of engineering, surveying and architecture, both landscape and structural.

Jefferson was a student of the classics and believed in classic forms. He was also a modernist. He relished innovation, political and architectural. The designer of the serpentine wall would, I am sure, have appreciated the juxtaposed nearby installation on campus of the work of another creative engineer – Alexander Calder. And I am confident that he would have been excited that Calder's majestic outdoor stabile would become complemented this week by the addition of a whimsical Calder mobile inside this wonderful museum.

He would also, I am sure, have marveled at the collection of aboriginal works given the museum by John Kluge. Jefferson the Curious could also be described as a cultural anthropologist. Cogitating about various religions of the world, he studied their points of convergence and concluded that what mattered most was not where they differed, but where they found common ground.

Many might find the importance I give the concept of curiosity itself a curious thought. But curiosity is imaginative thinking. And imagination fortified by knowledge is a powerful force. It is exactly what oppressive states fear. That is why oppressors are invariably censors. They attempt to close the ears of their people and cloak them with orthodoxy of one kind or another. But the human soul is by nature curious and responds to imaginative thought. It is no accident that it was a playwright in Czechoslovakia, a humanist labor leader in Poland, and a Pope in Rome who established that the human spirit is more powerful than a tank commander reporting to an ideologue in the Kremlin. Ideas matter. And when ideas are amplified by recognition that alternative models of governance exist, whether they be in far-away or adjacent places, people-centric approaches become more easily imagined and demanded.

In this context, Jeffersonian thought may have been as relevant to resolution of the Cold War as the geo-strategies of any 20th Century leader.

In politics, process is our most important product. In learning, Marshall McLuhan's assertion that the medium is the message retains certain resonance. We are all discomforted with aspects of this controversial contention. But there is another side to the technology that incentivizes couch-potato citizenship. The computer revolution holds out the prospect that the digital library could become an international citadel for the pursuit of curiosity.

The NEH is proud to have partnered with the University of Virginia in a host of significant digital projects: preparing a multimedia archive on Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Dolley Madison digital edition; providing digital teaching methodologies for Dante; cataloging and creating electronic access to Buddhist literary texts; and cataloging the Tibetan Buddhist Canon.

The NEH has also partnered with the university in supporting the scholarly editing and print publication of the papers of George Washington and James Madison.

We also are helping to support Princeton and the University of Virginia in digitizing the papers of Jefferson. But digitization is more than archiving records of historical and literary figures and relevant religions. Understanding history requires a sense of how events affect the lives of ordinary citizens. Accordingly, in an extraordinarily successful undertaking a decade ago, the NEH and the University of Virginia partnered in a digital project that compared the historical experiences of two Civil War era communities, one in a union town in Pennsylvania, the other in Virginia.

I would like to conclude with the observation that the future is now the province of the curious. Individual rights may by nature be inalienable, but history demonstrates that they must be nurtured to be protected and embellished. The great revolution that Jefferson helped precipitate and the learning monument he established here in Charlottesville are about the democratization of ideas as well as institutions of government. The two go hand-in-hand. The cornerstone of democracy is access to knowledge. It is what provides citizens the ability to apply judgment and perspective to issues of the day.

The curious pursuing their curiosity may be mankind's greatest if not only hope.