If you have ever listened to a story and laughed, cried, learned or wanted to know more about the storyteller, then you experienced a humanities moment.
The humanities – the study of literature, history, art, music, philosophy and other fields – document, examine and celebrate human experience through stories about cultural heritage, history, community, religion and shared struggles and achievements. They enable us to better understand ourselves, our world and each other.
A tiny percentage of tax dollars – 0.003 percent of the federal budget – goes to the public humanities. Some may ask why so little support, while others ask why any at all? Given the pressing needs of our nation, both are fair questions.
The answer dates to 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act into law, establishing the National Endowment for the Humanities, or NEH. The bill was the culmination of a movement calling for the government to invest in American culture, just as it had with science and medical research.
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The idea was to make the humanities accessible to every American, not just those who could afford admission to a museum, lecture or concert, or travel to another state or country. It was built on the notion that a part of tax dollars might be reasonably spent giving voice to people who were sometimes not heard or seen, while also opening to everyone those windows of experience that lead to knowledge.
Making the humanities accessible is an example of a government initiative working as intended. Today, NEH-funded events and programs reach more than 5,300 rural, suburban and urban communities annually. In 2016, more than 40 million people attended some public humanities event, and some 120 million participated virtually.
Part of NEH funding goes to programming at the grassroots level through affiliated state humanities councils such as the North Carolina Humanities Council, a private, nonprofit organization. For more than 40 years, the council has delivered public humanities programming and provided grants to local organizations in towns large and small, in every congressional district, in every corner of our state.
The council makes the lives of North Carolinians better by providing opportunities to learn about history and culture. It works with local museums, libraries, K-12 schools, universities, senior centers, churches, social service agencies, corporations, small town businesses and state tourism offices. Every tax dollar spent for these initiatives has successfully leveraged funding from other sources, increasing the impact of the public investment in the public humanities.
Recent programs examined scientific revelations in literature, the later years of Robert E. Lee, the Holocaust through the eyes of a survivor, and poetry and writings of slaves. Another initiative enabled military veterans in North Carolina to acclimate to life after their service to the country by writing and sharing their stories in discussion groups. Residents in rural communities had access to traveling exhibits such as “The Way We Worked,” created by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Still another innovative program enabled doctors to hone their skills as care providers by studying literature together.
All these offerings and more were made possible through the work of council staff and financial support from the NEH. However, this proven record of public benefit is in jeopardy. The Trump administration has proposed the elimination of NEH as part of its draft budget to Congress, which would have a devastating effect on the work of the North Carolina Humanities Council. By any measure, the NEH and the council have delivered tremendous return on investment for taxpayers and are worthy of continued public support.
Claiborne Pell, a U.S senator who co-sponsored the legislation creating the NEH, described the public humanities as vital to “the full growth of a truly great society.” More than 50 years later, this vision is no less vital and may be even more essential.
In a divided state and nation, insights from the humanities can be critical in finding common ground. The humanities can be the means by which we move from shouting at one another to having a conversation, which then, we can hope, would lead to an understanding of divergent perspectives.
We must maintain the small but important commitment to the humanities in order to sustain a vision of keeping America great. I hope someday we will be discussing an increase to this commitment rather than its elimination.
Mark O. Costley is the chair of the board of trustees of the North Carolina Humanities Council. He is an attorney in Durham.