One of my first responsibilities as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s assistant for domestic affairs in 1964 was to organize and orchestrate a task force of men and women charged with creating the National Endowment for the Humanities. Two of the most rewarding days of my life came when Congress enacted and LBJ signed the legislation bringing the NEH into being. Over the past years, under Democrats and Republicans, the NEH has made a singular (Donald Trump might even say “terrific” or “fantastic”) contribution to the nation by supporting books, films, exhibits and many other activities that enrich the life of the mind and our understanding of American history and ideas.
Now the Trump administration proposes to eliminate altogether the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (the umbrella agent of PBS and NPR). Conservatives have long sought their abolition. Now, with the support of a president who seems to have no understanding, empathy or experience with either the world of ideas or the role of the arts, they may succeed. It is against that possibility I have asked my old and dear friend Martin Marty, one of our most distinguished historians, for permission to reprint this essay from his stimulating blog Sightings.
By Marty E. Martin
In and after the present chaos, should our republic survive as a republic, wounded but responsible citizens will need to assess what they lost and what they might recover. So many humane causes will beckon for attention. The arts and humanities may have a lower priority when it comes to the union’s constitutional commitment to promoting the general welfare — relative to higher priorities like care for the aged, the ill, the poor, the displaced — but they deserve a glance in this time of crisis. In the proposed national budget they would be demolished. Sightings, however, has stayed alert to them. We know more about them and their place than we do about many other causes.
While “national endowments” for the support of these might disappear, one hopes that concern for them now will help set priorities for “then.” Endowment funds are peanuts compared to budget line items like bombers, etc., but they could mean all the difference between a robust and creative cultural and intellectual scene and the alternative. It is time, if not to shout out or speak up, then at least to whisper.
My own whisper today will not be my own words, but a quotation of others. We may know what the “arts” are, but it is more difficult to define the humanities. Let me quote from the first page of The Humanities in American Life, an aging 1980 (AD or CE, that is) report from the Commission on the Humanities, of which I was 1/32nd part, though I was not responsible for writing what follows. Knowing how hard it is to define the humanities, the commission began by pointing them out. Thus I quote:
…the humanities mirror our own image and our image of the world. Through the humanities we reflect on the fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? The humanities offer clues but never a complete answer. They reveal how people have tried to make moral, spiritual and intellectual sense of a world in which irrationality, despair, loneliness and death are as conspicuous as birth, friendship, hope and reason. We learn how individuals or societies define the moral life and try to attain it, attempt to reconcile freedom and the responsibilities of citizenship, and express themselves artistically. The humanities do not necessarily mean humaneness, nor do they always inspire the individual with what Cicero called “incentives to noble action.” But by awakening a sense of what it might be like to be someone else or to live in another time or culture, they tell us about ourselves, stretch our imagination and enrich our experience. They increase our distinctively human potential.
Not all people who are devoted to the humanities and/or live off their yield are veteran activists. But they might relearn some “incentives to noble action” and strive to quicken those who are in power while the current budget and tax proposals are still only that — proposals. Such citizens can revisit in the humanities what the commission noted are not always conspicuous, but nonetheless present: “hope and reason.”