In Support of the Humanities

The seal of the National Endowment for the Humanities showing an eagle holding both arrows and an olive branch in its claws.Given the Trump Administration’s denunciations of various Americans and numerous manufactured crises, we might easily overlook its attack on the humanities.  For the third consecutive year, the Trump Administration has proposed closing down the National Endowment for the Humanities.  It has also proposed major cuts for the National Archives Administration and the complete elimination of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

The justifications for these kinds of cuts are predictable.  The endangered programs are said to be too costly, although the projected savings of only $28 million for National Endowment grants is not even a drop in the bucket compared to military and defense spending.  More generally, supporters of the cuts are prepared to echo the public’s growing skepticism about the value of the humanities, particularly because they purportedly do not result in marketable skills.

What we really need, some might insist, is more funding for STEM programs or, at least, a greater commitment to programs that develop roll-up-your-sleeves practical approaches to problem-solving.  These are the types of programs, it is claimed, that best prepare people for life and especially for work and employment in the context of the proverbial market economy.

Holding to the side the fact that STEM and skills funding already greatly exceed grants for teaching and research in the humanities, denigrators of the humanities overlook what might be gained from teaching and learning in such disciplines as art, classics, foreign languages, history, literature, music, philosophy, and religion.  Each of these disciplines in its own way invites us to reflect on the most fundamental of questions:  What does it mean to be human?

There is, of course, no definitive answer to the question, but reflection on the question improves our imagination, encourages empathy, and expands consciousness.  Critical and reflective rather than empirical and rule-bound, the humanities explore our complicated species’ attempts to make intellectual, moral, and spiritual sense of human beings’ conduct and behavior.

How valuable this could be in light of humankind’s past record of and current tolerance for deprivation, alienation, and destruction! Without lapsing into gloomy doom-saying, we might agree human society is failing to enrich the experience of being human to anywhere near the extent that is possible.  Stated simply, we could do much more for one another.

Perhaps it is too much to hope that the Trump Administration will come to appreciate what study and research in the humanities can provide.  But for the rest of us a humanities-inspired imaginativeness, genuine empathy, and critical consciousness are the starting blocks for living thoughtfully in our multicultural society and in a world marked by great and disturbing inequality.

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