Democracy and the Humanities

By Paul Lukacs, Ph.D.

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The rationale for creating both it and its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, was stated clearly in the legislation that Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed. “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens,” declared the National Arts and Humanities Act. “It must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.”

In the years since then, the NEH has supported thousands of educational programs in schools and communities across the country. Though critics have sometimes quibbled about funding specific performances or projects, the agency always has remained true to its commitment to cultivate a culturally informed and engaged citizenry. What has changed, however, is the commitment on the part of many elected officials as well as many members of the general public to the broad vision of education that the original Act endorsed when it proclaimed “the realm of ideas and of the spirit” to be every bit as important as the world of “superior power [and] wealth.”

Education, particularly in colleges and universities, increasingly is being portrayed these days simply as job training. Consequently, subjects in the arts and humanities that have no direct connection to the marketplace become disparaged as useless or irrelevant. This line of thought comes from people on both the left and the right. President Obama, for example, promotes vocational programs while disparaging majors like art history. “I promise you,” he told a crowd in Wisconsin last year, “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than with an art history degree.” Meanwhile, Governor Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, wants to charge students attending that state’s public universities higher fees if they major in the arts or humanities than if they major in subjects that appear to train them for immediate employment. And Governor Patrick McCrory, Republican of North Carolina, says that he does not want to subsidize students taking courses in subjects like gender studies because “that’s not going to get someone a job.”

But is a paycheck the only value of higher education? Is it the real value? In a democratic society, where citizens need to be able to make informed judgments and think both carefully and critically, might not we want college to provide students with something more—something, well, higher—than just an entrée into the marketplace?

If democratic citizenship were based solely on economic self-interest, equating education with job training might make sense. But a well-functioning democracy also requires the cultivation of empathy, an understanding and concern for others and so for society as a whole. Can empathy be taught? Probably not, but it certainly can be experienced. And the experience of empathy is precisely what exposure to the arts and humanities provides. Why do we lament for Lear or anguish with Ahab? Why do we bother about those who lived centuries before us? Why do we learn a foreign language? Why do we marvel at Socrates and feel shame when Christ tells us that the meek are the ones who are blessed? And why do we stand in awe before a painting or when listening to a piece of music that in some unaccountable way moves us? Isn’t it because, if only for a moment, we are both ourselves and not ourselves, because we care? And shouldn’t learning to care be what education in a democracy is all about?

Dismissing the arts and humanities for an alleged lack of relevance to the world in which we live is both short-sighted and wrong-headed. Back in 1965, America was deeply divided along racial, political, and generational lines. Sadly, the country remains divided today—often violently so. There are many reasons for this, but surely one is that not enough people care deeply enough about one another and about society at large.

When Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island cosponsored the Arts and Humanities Act, he said he was doing so because he was dedicated to “the full growth of a truly great society.” Those specific words may sound politically anachronistic in 2015, but the idea they convey remains as important as they did fifty years ago: To become truly great, American democracy needs the arts and humanities.

Paul Lukacs, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English at Loyola University Maryland. On Sept. 25-26, Loyola hosted a two-day symposium, “Democracy and the Humanities,” to commemorate the Sept. 29 NEH anniversary.

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