Faculty Director and Chair of the Board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado Boulder Patricia Limerick gave a virtual guest lecture at UC Santa Barbara titled “Community Engagement and an Ethic of Accountability.” 

Limerick — also a history professor at CU Boulder — discussed how collaboration between humanities and S.T.E.M. majors inside and outside of the classroom can move the world forward. Greg Johnson, director of the UCSB Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion, and Public Life and a professor in the Department of Religious Studies, moderated the event.

“I think we have wasted quite a bit of time in the academic world drawing disciplinary boundaries,” Limerick said during the talk. “If we could have done less of that, we might have happier lives, and more impact.”

According to Limerick, history is constantly repeating itself, with individuals across generations rarely learning from past mistakes. 

“We live in an amnesiac society,” she said. “We live in a society where people bump into things and bump into each other and spend a preposterous amount of time blaming each other for situations that originated long before any of us were born.”

“You need to have, as quickly as you can, your bearings in time,” Limerick continued. “You need to be able to say, ‘Okay, we’re in a dilemma now. Where does this dilemma come from? What can we learn from how we got here as to how we’re gonna deal with it and how we’re going to get beyond it?’”

Only after historians have advised on the context of a historical issue should engineers and scientists step in to deal with its technicalities, Limerick said.

“Engineers and natural scientists would do better in life and would have more positive impacts if they traveled around with humanities companions, if they had us along to say, ‘Oh, we want to be a little bit careful there,’” Limerick said.

According to Johnson, the traditionally insular nature of the humanities is emblematic of a larger issue in higher education.

“I think I am still tired from graduate school learning theory, learning how to make things obscure through language and jargon,” Johnson said. All that that accomplished, he said, was to “cordon” off the university from the rest of the world. 

Johnson said it was pointless to talk “to ourselves [and] about ourselves, in a coded language of specialization.”

“The people you’re talking about, they’re real,” Johnson said. “The world they live in is real.”

The discussion also covered specific examples of applying humanities to the real world and to counter the notion that the humanities must be insular by encouraging students to engage personally and genuinely with other people.

Limerick recounted having filmmaker Ken Burns visit CU Boulder to receive the Wallace Stegner Award in 2018, with about 2,000 people watching the proceedings in person. Before being presented with the award, Burns viewed a student film on Korean War brides and asked the group if they wanted compliments or suggestions for improvement. 

“And these mature-beyond-their-years kids said, ‘Tell us what could be better,’” Limerick said. “I might be tearing up here because it was just such a great thing to see.”

The final portion of the talk covered the return of Chumash cultural items and human remains to their original owners. 

“The university has many hundreds, if not thousands, of human remains stored here,” Johnson said. “We are a day late and a dollar short, but we’re finally getting around to taking repatriation seriously on this campus.”

Limerick said that repatriation is a way of recognizing the injuries done in the past and taking the step to begin healing history. 

“We’re aware of the injuries of the past, and we’re not paralyzed by this, and we don’t think that you’ve vanished.”

“That doesn’t reverse the injuries of the past or erase them or anything like that,” she continued. “But it says, ‘We’re doing our best.’”

To conclude the event, Limerick recounted a 1991 Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibition titled “The West as America.”

“It became a very wild fray, and senators were storming around and threatening the Smithsonian budget,” Limerick said. The director of the museum, she said, asked her to be on a panel to defend the exhibit and the museum.

“Well, nobody has ever said that to me before. But I think I have said it to myself every week,” she continued. “The nation needs all of us. It’s all hands on deck.”