BOSTON — It is sadly ironic that at this moment when our society needs the humanities and the arts more than ever, our nation's two major cultural agencies, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, are threatened with extinction.
The Trump administration has released a budget proposal that would eliminate funding for the NEH and the NEA. While both agencies enjoy broad bipartisan support in the Congress, there are some in both the House and the Senate who agree that promoting the arts and humanities is not an appropriate function of the federal government. At a time when so many important federal agencies are under fire, the threat is very real.
Why do we need the arts and humanities? What public function do they serve? Why should the average taxpaying American care about the NEH?
American society is beset by two fundamental anxieties. One is economic and has many sources, including the accelerating pace of technological change, the globalization of both labor and capital, and troubling demographic trends.
Our other anxiety is moral. Its cause is increasing social fragmentation resulting in a loss of trust in one another and the lack of any sense of a common good. Economic considerations tend to push aside all others in our political system, but in the long run the lack of agreement about what ultimately matters is a far more serious threat to the vitality of our democracy.
The roots of our anxieties feed off and exacerbate each other. Because we lack a vision of a common good above and beyond the sum total of our individual interests, we accept the idea that the best society is one that satisfies the economic interests or desires of the greatest number of citizens. Thus, the defining characteristic of a healthy nation becomes an ever expanding economy and rising standards of living.
We come to expect continuous economic progress as a birthright. When these expectations are not met, when people begin to feel economically insecure, they look for someone to blame and this blaming sets us against each other, worsening the social fragmentation that already obstructs our vision of a common good.
The search for a common good is the domain of the humanities. History, literature, philosophy, and cultural studies provide us with the ideas and insights, the analytical and interpretive tools, and the empathy and language we need to understand each other and, just as importantly, to understand ourselves. Without such understanding, there is little hope that we will discover the shared aspirations and ideals out of which a durable sense of a common good can emerge.
Without shared aspirations, civic life is impoverished. We see this in the rampant cynicism and disdain for virtually all things "public" and the decline of civility and decorum in public discourse in general, and in politics in particular.
Here, too, the humanities — and particularly public issue-oriented humanities programs like those organized and sponsored by the NEH-funded state humanities councils — can provide some remedy.
When the perspectives of history, literature, philosophy and the other humanities disciplines are brought to bear on a controversial social issue, a broader context is created within which a dispassionate and reasoned exchange of views can occur. Unrecognized connections between the issue at hand and other important issues are revealed; ways the controversy has been resolved (or not) in other times or in other places are presented for comparison; the underlying values at stake in the controversy are exposed, and alternative means for preserving those values can be imagined. Agreement, or at least a modicum of mutual understanding, is far more likely to occur in this context than in a partisan debate between opposing interests.
Clearly at this time in our deeply divided nation we need more humanities, not less; more art, not less; more attempts to understand ourselves and each other, and to try to reach some agreement about what ultimately matters.
David Tebaldi is executive director of Mass Humanities and a 2017 recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council's Commonwealth Award for Leadership.