My earliest political memory is of my father’s reaction to my uncle’s observation that he thought Robert Taft would be a good president. Daddy narrowed his eyes and slowly shook his head: “Taft was never a friend of the working man,” he growled. Born and raised in Saline County, my parents were staunch Democrats, and my grandfather had served in the Legislature as a Democrat before it became a non- partisan unicameral.
A couple of uncles by marriage brought a much more typically Nebraska Republican position to our family gatherings, and I loved listening to their sometimes heated discussions. After the company had left, I would pester my parents with “why” questions. My father’s answers were grounded in the personal history of a self-taught blue-collar worker and son of Austro- Hungarian immigrants who had left Europe before the devastation of two world wars.
Although my exploration of the “whys” would benefit from a far more extensive formal education in history than my dad enjoyed, these earliest experiences of using history to understand issues helped shape my life. Even during the radical student days of the late 60s and early 70s when I was in graduate school, I believed that you had to understand why something was as it was before you could change it. Simple slogans wouldn’t do.
The state humanities councils, with their congressional mandate to use the humanities to foster public understanding of critical issues, became a natural vocation for me. While finishing my dissertation, I served as a scholar in a project exploring women’s issues funded by the brand new Nebraska Committee for the Humanities. An NETV film series with discussions held around the state encouraged Nebraskans to look at historical forces shaping women’s traditional roles and analyze the factors demanding change. It was a perfect vehicle for understanding why this issue was so controversial that Nebraska first approved the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and then repealed it. I had found my calling!
I believe that Humanities Nebraska fulfills its highest mission when it enables Nebraskans to draw upon history and the humanities to better understand the challenges we face today. Whether it’s a question posed to a Chautauqua scholar about government’s role in agriculture during the Depression; an exhibit that traced Nebraska’s English-only law back to WWI anti-German-immigrant sentiment; or high school students from across the state at Capitol Forum exploring the divisive legacy of western imperialism in the Middle East today—Nebraskans are asking “why.” They are learning that the humanities are essential to citizenship.
Jane Renner Hood was executive director of Humanities Nebraska from 1987 to 2010. Prior to that, she was on the staff of the Illinois Humanities Council and taught history at UNL, Creighton University, and Northwestern University. Hood was one of the founding members of the Nebraska Cultural Endowment and also served on the Federation of State Humanities Councils. She has a B.A. in history from Doane College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in European history from UNL.
In her retirement, Hood continues her commitment to the humanities and citizenship by serving on the boards of directors for the Cooper Foundation, Doane College, Lincoln Literacy, and the Foundation for Lincoln City Libraries. She is on the advisory board for the Willa Cather Foundation, serves on OLLI’s history committee, records magazines and books for the Library Commission’s Talking Books, and occasionally reviews books for NET-Radio’s “All About Books.” She has a son and two granddaughters who live in Chicago.