Turning to the humanities in times of crisis

In times of crisis, communities look not just to political leaders, but also to rabbis and pastors, teachers and essayists, historians and ethicists, and others steeped in the humanities to provide historical relevance, ethical guidance and other important narratives.

As a new resident of Baltimore, I was just beginning to feel at home in this culturally rich and wonderfully diverse town when unrest broke out in parts of the city this spring. Watching the city during that time not only deepened my appreciation for the strength of the Baltimore community, but also renewed my commitment to academia — and specifically at a university that emphasizes the importance of a liberal arts education, offering each of its students a solid foundation and appreciation for the humanities.


Why do the humanities matter in this moment? How can considering literature, history, language, philosophy, religion and art unite us and help us understand and resolve the conflicts and tensions present in our community today? Certainly no social problems are simple or straightforward.

It is the humanities that make it possible for us as a community to approach complex problems more liberally, engaging in essential discourse, thinking about solving and approaching an understanding together with, perhaps, a deeper commitment to enduring solutions.


The New York Council for the Humanities holds "Community Conversations" in which a facilitator from the local community uses a short text to promote thoughtful, engaged community dialogue. Likewise, the Maryland Humanities Council hosts "Humanities Connection," a WYPR program that explores the intersection of the humanities and our daily lives through conversations on the past, present and future; the power of literature; and the importance of the humanities in making sense of the human experience.

These endeavors help us to take a more open, interpretive view that balances what is good and what is troubling; what constitutes the responsibilities of a citizen and those who govern; and what constitutes a good, healthy community.

Fifty years ago this month when President Lyndon B. Johnson created the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the nation was in the midst of racial conflict, fighting Civil Rights battles domestically while engaging in warfare in Vietnam. Two years earlier President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and the nation was still trying to find its footing, seeking leadership, feeling uncertain of the future.

No wonder the NEH was born out of that time of tension and struggle.

No wonder we continue to need the humanities today — perhaps more than ever.

The humanities offer a perfect opportunity to bridge the gap between the academy and the real world. NEH President William Adams is calling for organizations committed to the humanities to emphasize the link between the humanities and public life through the NEH's initiative, "The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square." Organizations committed to celebrating the humanities must engage the public out loud in discourse about how and where we live in the world and how to work toward the public good — together.

To mark the anniversary of the creation of the NEH, Loyola University Maryland — where I serve in an academic leadership role — is hosting a two-day symposium, "Democracy and the Humanities," on Friday and Saturday. I am confident scholars from across the country speaking at this event will offer a chance for us to discuss how to advance this essential conversation.

We can only understand today's social justice concerns if we consider our city and our nation's history. We can only appreciate the tensions and the troubles people face today if we examine their life stories in the context of a changing Baltimore. We can only understand the troubling socioeconomic and racial issues that so many of our cities, including Baltimore, confront if we trace the development and understand the contemporary and historic context. The humanities provide us the content, the methods, the means and a starting point for members of the community to understand, to explain and to ultimately take responsibility for our history and for our communities — to be citizens in action.


When we, as a people, are informed of what is happening around us, locally and globally, and understand the connections to the past, we are better citizens, coming together to strengthen our nation and community. I encourage you to join me in working to inspire this deeper, broader, thoughtful conversation about the past, present and future of our city.

Baltimore is, after all, our home.

Amy R. Wolfson is vice president for academic affairs and professor of psychology at Loyola University Maryland. She can be reached at