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Op-ed: To be true Americans, we need to support the humanities

First Published      Last Updated Feb 11 2017 06:30 am

The events of recent months have raised anew an old set of questions: What does it mean to be an American? How do we define freedom and democracy? How do we discern fact from fabrication? We cannot answer these questions without engaging the humanities. Truly, the humanities shine in tumultuous times because they provide us with the tools we need to skillfully evaluate, understand and navigate our complex world. We need the humanities now, more than ever.

Yet some members of Congress propose severely cutting or eliminating altogether the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency that since 1965 has provided funding support for the humanities. The NEH's total annual budget has held steady in recent years at $148 million, a small portion of the federal budget that is used very effectively and efficiently. Many have noted that NEH's annual budget amounts to a rounding error in the context of the federal budget, yet the agency's impact is great.




Through their grants, NEH provides millions of dollars across the country and in the state of Utah to support a range of programs including children's literacy projects; study groups that help veterans reintegrate into civilian life; continuing education of K-­12 teachers through teacher‑education seminars; museum exhibits about America's rich history for urban and rural communities; and grants that help libraries and archives preserve America's cultural heritage, to name just a portion of their programs. The NEH, like the humanities disciplines it supports, is essential to the health of our democracy because it supports the development of our educated citizenry. The humanities do this in profound and numerous ways. Here are a few examples:

Valuing the study of world languages is deeply rooted in Utah's culture. Utahns know through their experiences around the world and at home that learning about another culture and speaking that culture's language opens doors to new realms of knowledge and experience that are of incalculable life value. More than ever, we need the cross-cultural understanding gained by studying the languages and cultures of the world.

Philosophy provides us with, among other things, the tools to weigh complex ethical dilemmas and moral challenges, and to exercise the skills associated with logic.

Ethical questions abound in our current political arena, just as they do in medicine, law, technology and business. The ability to resolve these dilemmas is also key to leading a life of integrity. This is central to the philosopher's knowledge and work.

History provides knowledge about the past, and illuminates our present — including our past challenges involving immigrants, religious persecution and racism — just as it helps us to celebrate our collective triumphs. History helps us to see that to be an American is not only to be in possession of legal documents that ordain our citizenship, but also to hold in one's heart and mind a set of unshakable convictions about liberty, equality and justice for all.

Great works of literature hold the key to unlocking new perspectives on conditions that are far away or long ago, but very relevant to the present. Books teach us about the resilience of humanity; they cultivate empathy for those whose lives are unlike our own; by learning to read closely and deeply we see the world anew. In short, the study of literature teaches us about the human condition.

These are just a few of the subjects we teach and study every day in the College of Humanities at the University of Utah, where we also teach students to communicate effectively, to think critically and to engage in their 21st century world as informed global citizens. Now, more than ever, we need the humanities in our schools and in our communities. Please contact your representatives today to let them know you support the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Dianne Harris is dean of the College of Humanities and a professor of history at the University of Utah.

 

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