Re-imagining the American Dream: The Humanities and Citizenship.

The following is a speech given by Jim Leach, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, November 5, 2011. It is wonderfully relevant to our mission and today’s cultural climate.

For a direct link, click here.

“These are tough times and everyone knows it. The mood is sour. The Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement exemplify the extent of public angst. There is a sense that the American people have been let down by the best and brightest in politics and finance.

Management of debt has become the dominant problem for the American family, the federal government, and most states and communities. There is a vibrant, not always well-articulated, debate about how or if the economy can be stimulated from Washington. Traditional Keynesian economists suggest that when government is faced with an economic downturn or national security challenge, it should press the fiscal levers; acolytes of Milton Friedman, on the other hand, argue caution, especially on raising taxes.

Both sides of the policy debate are confronted with more limited options than in the past. At some point debt accumulation becomes unmanageable. No economist knows where the breaking point is because in the final measure nation-states operate in a market economy. It is public confidence that determines the marketability and pricing of debt. What we do know is that the costs of government are bound to escalate as the payment on debt obligations places an ever increasing claim on national resources and as a higher proportion of the population reaches retirement age. In addition, we know there is the hangover from this past decade’s fiscal decision making that can’t be ducked. For the first time in our or perhaps any country’s history we chose to cut taxes in wartime. No shared economic sacrifice was called for. The entire cost of our foreign entanglements has been passed on to future generations. The result is that a year ago we raised approximately 15 percent of the GDP in taxes and spent 25 percent. These are unsustainable figures.

This brings us to the increasingly surreal world of Washington politics and the fiscal decisions that affect all elements of the federal budget. What is so troubling is that differences in judgment that are worthy of respect are exacerbated by partisanship that undercuts the capacity of governing bodies even to make decisions.

Where do the humanities fit in? The National Endowment for the Humanities is part of the so-called domestic discretionary budget. We are a minor part of this segment of the federal budget and a minute dimension of the full budget — approximately 1/25,000th. An elimination of all domestic discretionary spending would not balance the federal budget. Nevertheless, the domestic discretionary category is clearly the most vulnerable part of the budget today.

As all of you know, the eyes of Washington are on a group of twelve legislators mandated to come up in the next few weeks with a plan to narrow the deficit by at least 1.2 trillion dollars over the next decade. Many economists on both sides of the Keynes-Friedman divide are suggesting that steeper out-year deficit reductions, $3 trillion or more, should be the goal. Such a sum will inevitably involve greater constraints on domestic discretionary spending but can only realistically be achieved by also reforming entitlement programs—i.e., Social Security and health care—and/or raising greater revenue, perhaps to the 18 ½ percent of GDP range that hallmarked the 1980s.

Under President Reagan, the last President to modify the underpinnings of Social Security, a combination approach was taken: the age of retirement was gradually raised, the formula for cost of living raises was adjusted slightly downward, and the income levels on which Social Security taxes are levied were moved upwards. The judgment in Congress and the Executive branch at the time was that this combination approach entailed fair and balanced sacrifice on the part of working Americans and their employers, who share the burden of paying Social Security taxes, and retirees who depend on the dedicated transfer of tax dollars. Of all our challenges, the retirement income aspect of Social Security remains the most manageable. Unfortunately, in today’s political climate it is unclear whether a balanced effort akin to the kind arrived at in the Reagan-Tip O’Neill era can be repeated.

The bigger fiscal trauma is health care, a subject upon which I am far from an expert. But, it is self-evident that lack of cost discipline in American health care delivery is weakening the overall economy. We are the only country in the world in which health care costs are a double digit percentage of the GDP—now approaching 17 percent—which contrasts starkly with the 5 percent of GDP figure health care represented when John F. Kennedy assumed office.

I mention this subject and these figures because when defense spending and interest on the national debt are excluded, it is Social Security and health care that principally drive the cost of the federal budget, and it is Medicaid that is the single most bedeviling cost element in the appropriations process of most state governments. I also mention it because many businessmen will tell you that it is health care costs rather than salary considerations that often drive corporate decisions to outsource jobs.

These seemingly extraneous macro-economic considerations are noted to underscore the fragility of our country’s fiscal picture and the precariousness of support for many traditional domestic programs. The optimistic news for the humanities, on the other hand, relates to NEH’s record. Few federal programs have done more with less.

NEH-supported books, documentaries, and programs reach out to tens of millions of citizens every year. The research we have facilitated since our inception in 1965 has resulted in over seven thousand books, eighteen of which have been awarded Pulitzer and twenty Bancroft prizes. And on the film front, we are proud of the epic documentaries we have supported like Ken Burns’s civil war and prohibition era series, and would note that this year, Freedom Riders has won three Emmys as well as the top Sundance award.

And, according to statistics assembled by Esther Mackintosh, in the past year alone, the state and territorial councils put on over 55,000 programs and conferences, touching every corner of the country. Generally cost-free to participants, the councils provide the finest outreach education in the humanities in the world today.

Let me cite two examples from one program. Geoff Giglierano, Director of the Missouri Humanities Council, described to me yesterday how a writing program his council developed for returning Iraqi and Afghan war veterans had affected participants. At one session, a psychologist working for Geoff asked to read a vet’s composition and then inquired how long the writer had been contemplating suicide. The vet was taken aback, but when the psychologist went over the words he had—perhaps subconsciously—jotted down, he acknowledged and came to grips with the issue. At the end of the day, the vet reported that he was convinced the program had saved his life.

Another vet who had been badly wounded and lost his ability to communicate verbally spent a day arranging words on paper and surprised himself with the poetic nature of his scribbling. All of a sudden he found that he could express his ideas in a prescient, uplifting manner. Poetry had tapped his soul and vice versa.

One life was saved; another’s soul was regenerated. Thank you, Humanities Missouri.

As you know, I have been in every state over the past several years, and quite a number more than once. People ask me if I have visited with a cross section of the country and I have to acknowledge this not to be the case. Instead, I have had the good fortune to visit with a cross section of extraordinary Americans: the men and women associated with state councils, colleges and universities, museums and libraries. It has been a truly uplifting experience. Every time I return to my office, my curious staff asks what I thought of a given council or state or school, and I am nonplussed. All I can think of is how ironic it is that we are in a national funk when so many thoughtful people are doing so much in such an impressive manner.

America will get through this period and come out stronger. All we have to do is get back to our roots and regain our optimism. The humanities will be central to this prospect.

At NEH in Washington we have chosen over the past two years to borrow from an ethic that has characterized council work from the beginning by promoting a “bridging cultures” theme. As part of that theme last year we put particular emphasis on the subject of civility in American politics and the challenges of better understanding Islamic cultures in world affairs. We expect to be continuing these emphases this year, but with regard to the civility initiative, I would like to give special attention to civics education and civic engagement.

Because education of almost any kind benefits an individual and thus society, all education might be considered to have a citizenship dimension. Nevertheless, common sense indicates that there are core understandings of national identity and values that each generation of citizens needs to think through. How to instill citizenship responsibilities and infuse citizenship values is a never ceasing challenge. In this endeavor at this time, care must be taken not to allow civics education to be narrowly confined to studies of such potentially stale subjects as the Electoral College and length of officeholder terms.

Thoughtful democratic governance requires, above all, that citizens understand the big picture: our own history and values, and the history and values of other societies. A background in broad areas of the humanities is vastly more important than a study of the mechanics of politics. The most instructive and most uplifting citizenship values are likely to be found in history, literature, poetry, and song. The biographies of individuals, the challenges and travails of peoples—real and fictional—provide the noblest models of greatness. They also provide pointed lessons when character flaws are revealed and misguided judgments are evidenced.

The civic reflection and discussion programs to which the councils have dedicated so much effort are what thoughtful citizens are crying out for across the country. Likewise, civic action can encompass community volunteer programs involving colleges and universities. Students have never been more idealistic. From the Ivy League to Tulane; from public universities in the Midwest and West to private colleges in the South, tutoring and poverty alleviation programs are increasingly being organized and led by students. America is in need of uplift, and tens of thousands of young idealists are providing it. So are the state councils.

Recently, by the way, I came across an inspiring book edited by two former members of NEH’s National Council—Leon and Amy Kass— and an academic colleague of theirs at Loyola University Maryland. Called What So Proudly We Hail, the book is an anthology of works that help frame an American identity. It includes selections from writers of fiction like Jack London, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth, of practitioners of revolutionary theory and civil disobedience like Jefferson, Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., of proponents of social change like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois and Willa Cather, of courage before adversity like John McCain, coupled with unifying songs and poetry about symbols like the flag and the eagle. I would commend this kind of humanities compendium to your work and would like to ask your advice on how NEH might in its new website point to some of the civic reflection programs that so many of you have undertaken.

The challenges are getting greater. There appears to be a gathering sentiment, exemplified by a Governor’s report issued earlier this year in this state, that higher education should move away from an emphasis on the liberal arts (aka: the humanities) to a greater focus on job skills. The assumption that jobs are the number one issue for most Americans is valid; a conclusion, however, that the liberal arts are not central to job creation is mistaken. Indeed, such a conclusion could too easily lead to policy prescriptions that undercut American competitiveness and the national interest itself.

One of the myths of our times is that the humanities are good for the soul but irrelevant to the pocketbook. Actually, they are central to long-term American competitiveness.

It is true that many jobs, such as in the building trades, are skill based, but job creation itself requires an understanding of community and the world. Change and its acceleration characterize the times. With each passing year jobs evolve, become more sophisticated. Training for one skill set may be of little assistance for another. On the other hand, studies that stimulate the imagination and nourish capacities to analyze and think outside the box are well-suited to the challenges of change. They make coping with the unprecedented a manageable endeavor.

What is needed in a world in flux is a new understanding of the meaning of the basics in education. Traditionally, the basics are about the three “R’s,” which in my state of Iowa are sometimes defined as “readin, ’ritin, and ’restlin.” However defined, they are critical. Nonetheless, they are insufficient. What are also needed are the studies that provide perspective on our times and foster citizen understanding of their own communities, other cultures, and the creative process.

To understand and compete in the world we need a fourth “R,” what for lack of a precise moniker might be described as “reality”—which includes not only relevant knowledge of the world near and far but the imaginative capacity to put oneself in the shoes of others and creatively apply knowledge to discrete endeavors.

Rote thinking is the hallmark of the status quo. Stimulating the imagination is the key to the future.

As individuals, we all try to make sense of our own odysseys through life. Our “universe” is small in relation not only to the solar system but the communities in which we live. But wherever we might be, we are affected by global events, whether related to the challenges of national security or the global hiring hall. In this insecure geo-political environment, a deeper comprehension of the fourth “R” (reality) has never been more important.

The insights provided by humanities disciplines and the judgmental capacity to analyze, correlate and express developed in humanities studies are not “dismissible” options for society; they are essential to revitalizing the American productive engine; they help define and inspire citizenship.

The irony is that as the Chinese have broken out of a Sino-centric mind set, they are putting increased emphasis on the study of foreign cultures, particularly our own. They are not only making a massive commitment to the study of English but have begun to broaden humanities curricula in their universities at the same time when we appear to doubt their importance.

A skeptic once suggested that the humanities are little more than studies of flaws in human nature. Actually they uplift on the one hand and warn on the other. The power of a few to commit acts of societal destruction and the contrasting capacity of a few to precipitate uplifting change has grown exponentially in the past century.

Two contrasting examples provide contemporary illustrations. Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, points out that little strikes greater fear in the hearts of despots than the humanities. They are anathema to tyrants because they liberate the mind. It is not surprising that in the wake of civil unrest several years ago, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that humanities courses in Iran must be purged to reflect only government-approved dogma.

To watch what appears to be an historic progressive revolution take shape in Cairo’s Tahrir Square this past year is to understand why oppressors have such reason to fear the humanities. To them, the danger is self-evident: a free thinking people will be tempted to lead their leaders. One liberated mind, a young Egyptian college graduate, Gigi Ibrahim, was interviewed on the Daily Show about why she became involved in the protests against her government. The answer she gave Jon Stewart was that she was inspired by taking a class at the American University in Cairo on social issues and movements. Ideas manifested themselves into ideals, and history, she found, provided the power of example. Individuals with convictions could stand up to tyranny.

Precedents can be instructive, but less so when the world in which we live has so many unprecedented problems, political as well as economic. Civilization, for instance, is on trial from two extremes: the looming prospect that weapons of mass destruction could be unleashed, and the reality that the more advanced and open a society, the more vulnerable it is to globalized terrorism.

Seldom, therefore, has it been more important for individuals in public life to appeal to the better angels rather than the baser instincts of the body politic. Whether the issues are social or economic, domestic or international, the temptation to appeal to the darker side of human nature must be avoided. The stakes are too high. The duty of public officials is to inspire hope rather than to manipulate fear. The health of nations is directly related to the temperance of statecraft.

It is also related to the depth of knowledge applied to decision making. This is no time to put the brakes on humanities studies or toy with anti-intellectualism. In reviewing, for example, our decision to go to war in Iraq, it is extraordinary to notice how inadequate attention to cultural issues may have cost lives as well as money. Yes, there was an “intelligence” failure related to misjudgments about Iraq’s nuclear capacities. But the greatest “intelligence” failure was our lack of understanding of the region, its people, and their religions.

The immediate past chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has repeatedly emphasized that the national debt is our No. 1 national security problem. In a remarkable initiative during Mullen’s tenure, two military officers last summer set forth a call for a new national strategic “narrative”—a masked term for “policy.” The implication of the proposal, though nowhere stated, is that relying on an overly interventionist foreign policy could be dangerous.

The Navy Captain and Marine Colonel who called for the new narrative warn against approaching the contemporary world with an “enemy” mindset. Instead, they propose what they term a doctrine of “sustainability.”

“Sustainability” assumes policies should be adopted that advance mutual advantage, with an emphasis on rebuilding American economic competitiveness. National security requires the making of investments in America’s intellectual capital and economic infrastructure.

For our part, we at NEH are basically striving in the current budget cycle to preserve a federal role in spurring knowledge development and dissemination. We recognize that it is likely we will have little choice except to attempt to do more with less. But none of us know what is ahead this budget cycle. Nor can we be confident about what may be in store in the next.

The principal rationale for humanities studies is and will probably always remain that they enhance the meaning of life. This rationale is so powerful that it too easily obscures the utilitarian case which is also compelling. Hence on Capitol Hill we have been stressing the importance of the humanities both to creating jobs and to understanding national security problems.

How can we compete in our own markets if we don’t understand our own culture or abroad if we don’t understand foreign languages, histories, and traditions? How can we contain prejudice and counter forces of hatred if we don’t come to know more about each other?

Several months back we helped sponsor a Capitol Hill mini-symposium in which we looked at the tie between the humanities and national security from several perspectives:

First, the need for policy makers to recognize that political traumas of the moment are surface issues that can be understood only in relation to underlying cultural bases: the customs, history, literature, philosophy, religion, and sometimes myths of a country or people. Such considerations are critical to devising approaches to avoid conflict, to prosecuting a war if conflict cannot be avoided, and to ending any conflict in such a way as to lessen the prospect of a similar conflict emerging again.

Second, the need in a democracy for the public to probe deeply the issues of the day in order to ensure thoughtful debate that accommodates and respects disparate views.

Third, the need to be aware that national security begins at home, not only in relation to the making of policy judgments but with regard to the respect or lack thereof accorded diverse American cultural groups. The advancing of mutual respect is central to relations between states and peoples. As an immigrant society with family ties to every country across the globe, we are watched closely. How we speak about others at home and abroad and assimilate elements of our own society affect whether peoples around the world view us as a beacon of hope and opportunity or a wellspring of prejudice.

We have also been pointing out on Capitol Hill that study after study indicates that Americans have little sense for their own history and that a crisis is looming in humanities research. State support for higher education is decreasing and foundation support for the liberal arts is waning. With annual spending that is barely more per capita than the cost of a postage stamp, the National Endowment for the Humanities is the “forgotten” research institution in Washington. Indeed, over the past generation it seems that the word “research” has come increasingly to apply to laboratories rather than libraries.

At NEH we respect and strongly support the sciences. Nevertheless, we are obligated to underscore the wise concerns that Congress expressed almost half a century ago. As NEH’s founding legislation affirms, “The world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit.”

Just as we need an infrastructure of roads and bridges, we need an infrastructure of ideas.

The humanities are America’s stock in trade. They are a national asset that we short-change at our peril.”

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One thought on “Re-imagining the American Dream: The Humanities and Citizenship.

  • Thanks for the superb blog entry about the importance of humanities. This should be required reading for any of the various state legislatures across the country trying to strip humanities and liberal arts from public universities.