President Donald Trump’s budget eliminates funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, along with other arts and culture agencies.
WHY should we use tax dollars to support the humanities? President Donald Trump’s proposed budget says we shouldn’t. It eliminates the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), along with other arts and culture agencies.
The president’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, tried to rationalize these cuts by dismissing the arts and humanities as elitist, asking, “Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?”
What Mulvaney failed to mention is the NEH costs only 62 cents per taxpayer each year. That’s the change you might find between the seat cushions of your car.
More important: Far from being elitist, the humanities unite us. They instill in all of us empathy and compassion, along with critical thinking and communication skills.
We live in a complex, interconnected world. People who know how to bridge divides between people, cultures and ideas are better positioned to build strong communities — and provide value in the workplace. To be sure, STEM education provides students with important math, science and technology training. But employers also seek individuals who can think creatively, and who possess strong written and oral communication skills.
I have seen the power of the humanities through the study of foreign language and literature. Today, the United States is split by differences. One hundred years ago, Finland was split by deeper divisions, which led to its 1918 Civil War. The human toll included thousands of deaths, trials and field executions. Afterward, bitterness, resentment and division persisted.
Fighting against Russia’s invasion in 1939 -1940 helped reunite the Finns. But it wasn’t until 1959, through the novel, “Here Under the North Star,” that Finns began to learn about the sacrifice and brutality citizens had undergone before, during and after the Civil War. Reading about other people’s experiences — and engaging with them — helped Finns regain respect for their neighbors and find atonement. They mended the national fabric. This year, Finland proudly celebrates its centennial.
President Ronald Reagan struck a similar note in speaking about the humanities in 1987.
“The humanities teach us who we are and what we can be,” he said. “They lie at the very core of the culture of which we’re a part, and they provide the foundation from which we may reach out to other cultures. The arts are among our nation’s finest creations and the reflection of freedom’s light.”
Yet it’s true that most people are unaware of the kinds of programs the NEH helps support, and the many communities the agency helps sustain.
One NEH-supported project in the state of Washington is the Jefferson Clemente Course, part of a nationwide set of courses. It offers accredited college classes at no charge to students.
Port Townsend City Councilmember Amy Howard took the Jefferson Clemente Course and now says “it was the catalyst that I needed to change my life.”
Today, Howard runs a business, and helps run a city.
The NEH has also invested in many projects supporting veterans through the “Standing Together” initiative. It seeks to “encourage humanities programs that focus on the history, experience, or meaning of war and military service.” The NEH has partnered with Humanities Washington and its 49 counterparts to reach out to veterans and bring their history and current stories to the public.
The NEH serves communities across the nation, and especially underserved rural ones, supporting museums, summer courses for teachers and digitization of archives that make historical documents available to us all.
The University of Washington’s Simpson Center for the Humanities received a $625,000 grant from the NEH to advance digital humanities, which was matched at more than two-to-one by private dollars. The grant has supported a widely used online archive, “Seattle’s Civil Rights and Labor History Project,” and “Women Who Rock,” which also includes an online oral history archive.
The humanities include foreign language, literature, film, history and more. Reading, writing and watching stories teaches all of us how to listen, learn and respect each other.
In times of extreme division among Americans, the humanities bridge the divide. We can afford that.