In my role as director of Humanities Montana, the state’s National Endowment for the Humanities council, I have the opportunity to interact with people around the state representing a wide range of social, religious and political views. No matter the perspective of the individual Montanan, in these conversations I hear a real hope for the civil dialogue and diverse viewpoints the humanities can offer our nation’s divided public square.
The mission of Humanities Montana is to “serve communities through stories and conversation.” By providing perspectives from literature, history, philosophy and other cultural fields, the public humanities aim to enrich and strengthen our democracy.
Recently I have also heard from those who regard the humanities as “non-essential,” a luxury reserved solely for eras of peace and prosperity. This position does not surprise me since we have spent the past year battling the brutal COVID-19 pandemic and addressing its related social, economic and political upheavals.
While acknowledging this reality, I ask these individuals to consider historical precedent. Especially in times of uncertainty and rebuilding, the humanities have been considered essential to maintaining our nation’s democratic values, institutions and way of life. Two such occasions come to mind: the establishment of the Federal Writers’ Project in 1935 and the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965. In both cases, the United States government invested explicitly and substantively in the humanities during periods of national crisis and peril.
Amid the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project hired thousands of out-of-work writers, historians and librarians to record local and oral histories, including the stories of the last generation of formerly enslaved Black Americans. This public archive has become central to our understanding of American history as the current generation revisits the nation’s legacies of slavery and racism.
At the height of the Cold War, in response to threats to democracy around the globe, Congress instituted the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). With the insight that “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens,” Congress generously funded the humanities as well as defense and scientific research initiatives. The NEH has gone on to support humanities education at the K-12 and higher education levels and to bring the public humanities to Americans’ daily lives through state councils like Humanities Montana.
What I take from these examples is that valuing and investing in the humanities does not have to be a “zero sum” game, even in times of uncertainty. The data also confirms this. A survey by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found that 73% of Americans see how the humanities make the economy stronger. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports the arts and culture sector is a growing $878 billion economic industry, accounting for 4.5% of the nation’s gross domestic product.
Especially during difficult times, the humanities help us appreciate who we are and what we aspire to as individuals and a nation. As deliberations about funding priorities fill the headlines in the coming months, consider the role of the humanities in enriching your life, your community and our democracy.
Randi Lynn Tanglen is executive director of Humanities Montana, the state’s affiliate council of the National Endowment for the Humanities.