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A timely lesson in the importance of the humanities

As a nonprofit organization devoted to providing lifelong learning in the humanities to all Marylanders, we are thrilled to hear about Bill Miller’s transformational investment in the philosophy department at Johns Hopkins University (“Investor Bill Miller promises $75 million to Johns Hopkins University philosophy department,” Jan. 16). We also could not agree more with Heather H. Murren’s assessment (“A $75 million bet on the humanities,” Jan. 30) that “a deep grounding in the humanities is becoming more important as globalization and technological change accelerate.”

We believe that what is at stake here is no less than the strength of our democracy. As the legislation that founded the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts more than 50 years ago reminds us: “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens.” Connecting the academy and the communities that surround it in ways that transform both — what we call the public humanities — is why Maryland Humanities exists.

Public dollars from NEH and private dollars like Mr. Miller’s work together to help us at Maryland Humanities to engage in communities and learn together using the lens of the humanities — not only Bill Miller’s beloved philosophy, but also history, literature, ethics and the law.

For example, Maryland Humanities recently brought two performances of Frederick Douglass by a local actor and scholar to the Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County. Through our reading and discussion programs, high schoolers engage with authors of our “One Maryland One Book,” veterans talk (some for the first time) about experiences of war at libraries throughout the state, and hospital personnel come together at work over a meal to interpret a shared text.

The result is, not only, in Ms. Murren’s words, “unconventional strategies, original thinking, and nuanced insights” that are useful in school and business, but empathy, well-reasoned arguments, and broader perspectives about those with differing opinions. We could all use more of that, no?

Phoebe Stein, Baltimore

The writer is executive director of Maryland Humanities.

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