My Turn: Souter is right: Humanities programs are critical

Last modified: 9/23/2013 12:31:18 AM
As the Monitor Forum reported Sept. 19, retired U.S. Supreme Court justice David Souter decried the fact that the humanities are “getting the short end of the stick” and urged Americans to support funding for humanities-based organizations and programs. “We are not asking for favors,” Souter said in an address in Albany, N.Y., in support of the findings in The Heart of the Matter, a report issued by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, of which Souter is a member. “We are arguing for the survival of the United States as we know it.”

Again this year, Congress is struggling to craft a budget and, once again, members are proposing cuts that have little effect on the deficit but dire consequences for the nation. We’ve heard the arguments – when times are tough, we must focus on the essentials. And we agree. That is why cutting funds for the humanities and the federal program that supports public humanities programming is short-sighted and dangerous.

Last September, Souter launched Constitutionally Speaking, a civics education initiative offered by the New Hampshire Humanities Council in partnership with the New Hampshire Supreme Court Society, the UNH School of Law, and the New Hampshire Institute for Civic Education. To a crowd of 1,000 that included middle- and high-school students, teachers, and members of the general public, Souter offered this stark assessment of the consequences of civic ignorance: “What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible. And when the problems get bad enough, as they might do for example with another serious terrorist attack, as they might do with another financial meltdown, some one person will come forward and say, give me total power, and I will solve this problem. . . . That is how democracy dies. And if something is not done to improve the level of civic knowledge . . . that is what you should worry about at night.”

The humanities – the examination of history, literature, art, religions, laws and languages – provide a framework for talking about our shared experiences and diverse beliefs. In a world of 140 characters and sound bites, the humanities challenge us to dig deep, to uncover complex layers beneath the headlines.

As we face critical international issues such as the crisis in Syria, isn’t it better to weigh the options with as much understanding of the history of the region as possible? Closer to home, we face pressing ethical choices about health care, education and energy, among others. How do we critically assess our problems and the public policy solutions we should institute? We need more than accurate information; we need wisdom and the power of imagination. The humanities cultivate both.

We are fortunate in New Hampshire to be surrounded by our history and culture, whether obvious – a colonial building in Portsmouth – or buried beneath our feet in a 12,000-year-old Abenaki site discovered in Keene. What can we learn from our state’s history that will inform the decisions we make today about such issues as land use, taxation or the balance of power between state and federal governments? What values underlie the stereotypes of New Hampshire that we see on TV every four years when the media descend for the presidential primary? Where did those values come from? Do we still hold them? Should we?

The humanities can help “humanize” contentious issues, turning slogans into real people and voices. Dreaming Again, a play commissioned by the Humanities Council as part of a statewide initiative on immigration in New Hampshire, offered glimpses of the hopes and daily challenges of newcomers, from French-Canadian weavers at the Amoskeag Mills in the early 1900s to a Bhutanese woman carrying groceries in the snow in 2011. As one audience member noted, “By interweaving past and present, it changed my understanding of what immigration meant in earlier days, and the historical materials suggested the deep continuities in the dream to make a better life in America. The sense of loss and alienation in a new land created new sympathy, and the stories of New Hampshire people reaching out to newcomers countered the recent news of anti-immigrant attitudes and legislation.”

In The Heart of the Matter report, Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, placed the need for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education in context by writing, “All the scientific and technological skills of which we can conceive will not solve our world problems if we do not build and adapt a base of human and cultural understanding; ethical and moral underpinnings; sensible rules of law for the 21st century; and integration with the insights, inspirations, and communications of the arts.”

Whether it’s fostering innovation, improving our critical thinking skills, or maintaining the health of our republic, we all have a vested interest in ensuring that access to a high-quality, lifelong education in the humanities is available to all. I hope you will join me in supporting the work of the New Hampshire Humanities Council and our hundreds of educational and cultural partners around the state, and that you will let your representative and senators know that funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities benefits us all.

(Deborah Watrous is executive director of the New Hampshire Humanities Council.)

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