America needs the humanities more than ever

Op-ed: The Trump administration and Congress must consider all that will be lost without public funding for th

Anne Arundel County students trained in oral history techniques interviewed veterans and Vietnamese Marylanders about their experiences during the Vietnam war as part of a project dubbed "A Journey through Vietnam." The recorded interviews will be housed at the Maryland State Archives as a resource for future generations. Without this project, these stories would likely be lost to time.

Oral history projects like this one, along with reading and discussion groups, community conversations and living history performances all fall under the category of humanities: history, literature, philosophy, languages, the law and ethics. Each fosters understanding of others and improves our ability to interact meaningfully — more important than ever in these divided times. We at Maryland Humanities have seen firsthand that bringing diverse groups of people together to share ideas and experiences can enrich our lives and strengthen the fabric of our communities.

But some have debated the value of such efforts. Indeed, the White House's proposed budget eliminates the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), along with its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). NEH is the federal agency that makes local programs like "A Journey through Vietnam" possible, through grant making across the nation and core funding to state humanities councils like ours. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with NEH support, Maryland Humanities is able to provide free access to educational opportunities throughout the entire state — from Mountain Maryland to the Eastern Shore. In 2016, we directly served nearly 52,000 people of all ages and backgrounds, from students to teachers and incarcerated populations.

Maryland Humanities programs — ranging from our statewide book club known as "One Maryland One Book" to a traveling Smithsonian exhibition — bring opportunities for lifelong learning, community connectedness and civic engagement to Marylanders in all 23 counties and Baltimore City. We also provide much-needed grant funding for local nonprofits and educational institutions, enabling them to address critical issues, like housing discrimination, through the lens of the humanities.

Such approaches help us explore what makes us human, connect us with others and discover meaning and richness in our lives and our communities. As the legislation that founded the NEH and NEA in 1965 proclaims: "Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens."

Last year, nearly 42,000 Maryland students (about 6,200 in Baltimore City) participated in our educational programming, including Maryland History Day and Letters About Literature. These programs spark critical thinking in students and help them develop and hone skills such as writing, research and analysis, and public speaking — skills that are useful in virtually every profession.

Still, even for those who agree that the humanities are a fundamental part of our lives, there is the often-cited argument that public funding for the humanities is an example of government overspending. Even overlooking the fact that NEH funding totaled just a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the federal spending last year, we believe federal investment in the humanities is appropriate and necessary. Government support makes ours a nation where thoughtful and informed citizens are committed to a lifetime of learning that invigorates and strengthens our democracy — and our economy — through an open-minded exchange of ideas. Across the country, state humanities councils leverage $5 dollars for every federal dollar awarded at the local level. Here in Maryland, we leverage $4.22 for every dollar of NEH funding we receive through direct contributions and in-kind goods and services from our hundreds of community partners. The value of the humanities far outweighs the cost.

We at Maryland Humanities, along with our colleagues at the 55 other state humanities councils across the nation, hope that the Trump administration and Congress consider all that will be lost without public funding for the humanities.

One of the high school students who participated in our veterans oral history program proclaimed it "life-changing." And a Wicomico County teacher said Maryland History Day taught his students "to research topics, to draw conclusions. They learned to address social issues, they learned to work well with others, they learned history, but most importantly they found their passion that led these young people to realize their dreams of college and a future they never knew was possible."

I can't think of a more compelling argument for the humanities than these testimonials. Wisdom and vision indeed.

Phoebe Stein is executive director of Maryland Humanities. Her email is pstein@mdhumanities.org.

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