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Humanists find happiness amid the pine forest

What is the National Humanities Center doing in the middle of a North Carolina pine forest?

Well, like a number of other cultural and research organizations lately, it found that the Research Triangle made it an offer it couldn't refuse.

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When the Boston-based American Academy of Arts and Sciences was looking for a site for its proposed center, it found the triangle universities' offer ''the most generally attractive'' of the dozen and a half it received, says Dr. Kent Mullikin, assistant director of the center.

The Research Triangle Park (RTP) site had the specific advantage of a tie with three universities (Duke, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State), rather than one.

The $2.5 million humanities center is a community of some 45 scholars -- in history, literature, and the social sciences -- taking a year off from their regular pursuits to focus on a particular research project.

This fall's ''class'' will range from Leila Ahmed of the University of Massachusetts, who will consider women in Middle Eastern history, to Martha Woodmansee of Northwestern, who will study ''the institution of literature.'' There is definitely something monastic about the skylit, white brick building that houses the center. The scholars' sparely furnished studies along the outside of the building look like cells.

But there is also a sense of community. The walkways through the building were laid out to facilitate ''chance encounters'' among scholars as they emerge for fresh air. They are seen as a leavening influence in RTP's technical environment.

While other researchers in the park are studying the latest semiconductor technology or PCB contamination, the National Humanities Center is, as Dr. Mullikin puts it, ''a kind of torch-carrying and torch-passing institution that keeps alive what Matthew Arnold called 'the best that has been thought and known.' ''

On a typical day the scholars arrive in the morning, work till midday, and break for a communal lunch, served cafeteria-style in the airy commons. The day of my visit I was reminded of nothing so much as a very nice college dorm just before the semester begins and everyone gets swamped with work.

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Conversation wanders where it will, far afield from the scholars' designated research topics -- into current events, or perhaps a comparison of auto-repair costs in the South and the Northeast.

After the lunch break it's back to the study for more research and writing. The center doesn't have a big library, but provides catalogues, such as Books in Print, from which books may be ordered. And the Triangle universities' excellent libraries are always nearby, of course.

As would be expected in a hotbed of technology like Research Triangle Park, the center also has a word-processing system, on which a special staff enters scholars' manuscripts as they are prepared for publication. The humanists themselves, by and large, still prefer typewriters.

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