"What Does it Mean to be Human?"

A Personal Testimony

When it became clear to me that I wasn’t cut out to be a farmer, the question remained – what else can I do?  I decided to return to school & see if I could find an answer to that question.  I enrolled in cultural anthropology courses at the University of Kansas, intending to focus on the study of cultural evolution.

After the first semester back in school, I wasn’t sure if this was really the direction I should head.  But I was offered a teaching assistant position and that was the deciding factor that prompted me to continue.  Who could pass up a job assisting with a course called Anthropology through Films?

When an advisor suggested that it would be wise for me to combine my study of anthropology with something that would be perhaps more practical in terms of employability, I came across a journal with some articles on media anthropology.  That prompted me to start adding courses in broadcasting and journalism to the mix after I received permission to create my own “special studies” major.

By the time I was ready to begin work on a thesis for a master’s degree, I had some foundational experience in writing, reporting and video production.  At that point, the same advisor who prompted me to find a way to apply anthropology was getting the ball rolling on a documentary project.  He asked if I’d be interested in directing and editing it, noting that he was applying for a media grant from the Kansas Committee for the Humanities to fund the project. 

Humanities?  What exactly are those?  Perhaps I should have known, but it wasn’t obvious.  I soon learned that the humanities include those fields of study that elucidate the human condition in one way or another – history & literature, philosophy & religion, cultural anthropology, etc. 

The grant application was approved and we soon got started on the production.  We produced a 60-minute documentary called Return to Sovereignty, which explored the history of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas and reflected on the impact of federal legislation intended to give Native American tribes more control of their own affairs.

The program was broadcast on the local PBS station and distributed for classroom use by an educational film distributor in California.  I not only learned how to assemble a full-length documentary and get it distributed, I also learned a lot about a local culture that had previously been unfamiliar to me.

That production took place 35 years ago.  Recently, I had reason to reflect upon it and other such productions as I prepared a few remarks to share with a gathering of folks in Topeka celebrating the 45th anniversary of the Kansas Humanities Council (they changed their name a while back). 

Acknowledging that another proposal has recently surfaced at the federal level to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, which provides a significant portion of KHC’s funds, the mood of the evening remained upbeat.  Three of our state’s poet laureates (a program now administered by KHC) came together to read a letter that would later be published in The Huffington Post, noting that annual funding for NEH amounts to only about 50 cents per person.

We’ve heard the periodic cries for elimination before, along with proposals to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  It hasn’t happened yet, and we can’t believe that our fellow citizens will allow our elected representatives to eliminate these programs. 

That’s not to say it can’t happen.  Kansans know all too well how budget cuts can extinguish valuable programs that enhance our quality of life and support local communities.  The list of such programs is quite long.  The Kansas Arts Commission has been one of the victims.  State funding to public broadcasting has been another – although it still exists, it’s a fraction of what it used to be. 

My personal connection to public broadcasting goes back to that first documentary about the Kickapoo in 1982, which aired on KTWU, the public TV station in Topeka.  The following year, KTWU served as the sponsoring organization as I submitted my own grant grant proposal to the humanities council, which approved my request.

Paul & Nancy Miller - Wabaunsee County, KS

Paul & Nancy Miller - Wabaunsee County, KS

This production focused on the challenges confronting farm families in Kansas and considered the future of the family farm.  There were a number of feature films on the topic hitting the silver screen at that time – Country (with Jessica Lange & Sam Shepard), Places in the Heart (Sally Fields, Danny Glover and John Malkovich), and The River (Mel Gibson & Sissy Spacek).  The struggles of the family farm were finding their way into the national spotlight.

My documentary Tomorrow’s Harvest featured three Kansas families engaged in different types of farming operations.  Facing questions about how the transition might be made as the farms passed from one generation to the next, each family faced a unique situation.  With the input of humanities consultants, we were able to place things in a broader, historical context revealing more about the nature of the changes taking place in rural communities.

Twenty years later, as executive producer at KTWU, I produced another documentary with the support of the humanities council.  Premiering in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Brown v Board in May of 2004, Black/White & Brown told the story of the landmark Supreme Court case. 

Narrated by Kansas native Bill Kurtis, a number of notable figures lent their voices to the show, including another native Kansan - Jim Lehrer – as well as Bill Moyers, Walter Cronkite and Gwen Ifill.  These people all knew the historical significance of this case & they all quickly agreed to participate, providing their services without any financial remuneration.

        Gwen Ifill -- The NewsHour                                                      with Jim Lehrer

        Gwen Ifill -- The NewsHour                                                      with Jim Lehrer

This program not only educated local residents in Kansas about the development and impact of this historic case, it was shared with PBS stations all across the nation and an abridged version was presented one evening on PBS’ NewsHour.  For the 10-minute version, I had the opportunity of working with the executive producer of The NewsHour, Linda Winslow, who took a personal interest and invested a significant amount of time in scripting it with me.  Have to say it was quite a thrill to see the piece introduced by Gwen Ifill that evening and to immediately receive complimentary feedback from Jim Lehrer. But the main point here is that a grant from the Kansas Humanities Council helped us put an important piece of Kansas history in the national spotlight.

In regard to the projects I’ve worked on, funding from the humanities council hasn’t been limited to the support of documentaries.  In 1989, KHC provided a grant to support the production of the second season of a new series called Sunflower Journeys.  With humanities scholars serving as advisors and consultants on the series, what could easily have become a simple travelogue turned in to a thoughtful excursion into the depths of our state’s natural, social and cultural heritage. 

The bond between the series and the humanities council continued to strengthen and grow over the years as KHC became a perennial partner, providing ongoing support that continues to the present day.  Sunflower Journeys marks its 30th anniversary this year –- 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 -- and it was my privilege to serve as the host for the first 27.

When I began producing programs with Prairie Hollow Productions, the humanities council supported production of a documentary about the history of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Chase County.   The program tells the story of the conflict and compromise that accompanied the establishment of this prairie preserve, which marked its 20th anniversary in November of 2016 during the year in which the National Park Service observed its centennial. 

The humanities council not only assisted with the funding of the show, it also helped promote it.  Using the program’s subtitle as the heading, KHC’s newsletter provided a concise summary of the show’s content, noting the key role play by former U.S. senator Nancy Kassebaum in the establishment of the preserve.  Nancy herself remains a passionate proponent of the humanities, particularly in regard to the documentation and preservation of Kansas history.

KHCnewsletter copy.jpg

I have been involved in hundreds of programs that have helped to educate Kansans about their history and heritage.  They’ve brought our common interests into focus and provided vehicles for sharing our state’s struggles and triumphs with the larger world.  Without the support and involvement of the Kansas Humanities Council and those who align themselves with its mission, these programs would not have been as effective as they have been, and, in some cases, they may not have come into being at all. 

I’ll end this post by quoting the opening line from the letter by our poets laureate, which is a good question to ponder as we respond to budget-cutting proposals:  “What does it mean to be fully human, and what is it worth?”  (Read their letter in The Huffington Post, here's the link )

Kansas Poets Laureate:  Denise Low, Eric McHenry, Wyatt Townley, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

Kansas Poets Laureate:  Denise Low, Eric McHenry, Wyatt Townley, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg