The Trump attack on the National Endowment for the Humanities strikes at the root of fundamental American values and practical foundations of our democracy.
The National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities are again under fire in Washington, reportedly targeted for elimination in the Trump administration’s upcoming budget proposal.
Let’s be clear: this move has nothing to do with saving money. Together the NEH and NEA account for about 0.01% of federal spending. (Imagine a household earning $50,000 annually. The proportionate cost for NEH’s share would be $2.50 for the entire year.) No serious argument can be made for the elimination of NEH on the basis of saving money for the United States treasury. The numbers don’t add up.
The attack on NEH is symbolic. And it’s an attack that strikes at the root of fundamental American values and seeks to undermine important practical foundations of American democracy. As citizens, we need to get this one right.
Since the Founding, public support for the humanities has played a key role in American public life. James Madison is credited with having suggested the creation of the Library of Congress in 1783, and ever since, government leaders have understood that support for the humanities is crucial to the ongoing work of protecting and defending our shared ideals of liberty and justice for all. Yet somehow you will hear opponents of NEH claim there is nothing here in the public interest.
We practice a form of government that asks us all to look beyond immediate individual self-interest, to cultivate empathy, develop wisdom, and endeavor to learn from the successes and failures of our past. We practice a form of government that has engagement with the humanities at its very heart.
Here’s how Congress put it more than 50 years ago in the legislation creating NEH: “To fulfill its educational mission, achieve an orderly continuation of free society, and provide models of excellence to the American people, the Federal Government must transmit the achievement and values of civilization from the past via the present to the future, and make widely available the greatest achievements of art.”
This is what’s happening in Maine. Through the programs of the Maine Humanities Council, this year low-literacy adults around the state will experience the power and pleasure of participating in conversations about books and ideas; combat Veterans will gather together to reflect on their military service through the communal experience of classic literature; staff members at domestic violence agencies from Sanford to Presque Isle will gain new perspective on their work through reading and discussing poetry and fiction. Here in Maine, the humanities do not live in the ivory tower. Here in Maine, the humanities are part of the rough and tumble of our shared human experience. Yet somehow opponents will try to tell you the humanities are solely for the enjoyment of cultural elites. They couldn’t be more wrong.
The efficient deployment of federal dollars for the benefit of communities large and small has long been a hallmark of the NEH. Across the U.S., organizations like the Maine Humanities Council see to it that every federal dollar awarded by NEH in grants leverages an additional five dollars or more. Because the funding mechanism works so well, Mainers in towns from Jackman to Lubec to St. Agatha benefit from humanities opportunities that promote critical thinking and civic discourse. It’s difficult to imagine a delivery system better designed to create the conditions necessary for democracy to flourish. Yet you’ll hear opponents falsely singling out the NEH as an example of waste, trying to tell you it’s not worth it.
Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. What’s at stake in this debate is not the exceedingly modest budget funding for a handful of small federal agencies. No, what’s at stake for us as a nation is how we are to live out our shared national values. This is the core question: With all our diversity, with all our deeply held views on different sides of every important issue, with all our varied backgrounds and the multitude of our different dreams for the future, how do we talk with one another about what matters most? If there has ever been a humanities question, surely this is it. And wrestling with this question is, in part, how you do the fundamental work of sustaining a vigorous democracy. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not worth it.