Reader's View, education: America needs the humanities now more than ever

August 10, 2013 

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences recently issued a major report on the need for a renewed national commitment to humanities education in K-12 classrooms, in our universities, and for lifelong learners.

Commissioned by a bipartisan group of senators and congressmen, including Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Mark Warner, D-Va., the report, titled "The Heart of the Matter," deserves a wide readership.

The report cautions that science, technology, engineering and math education (STEM) not come at the expense of the humanities. While STEM education may offer a path to jobs, the humanities are critical to an informed American citizenry. The survival of democracy itself hinges on a citizenry versed in history, literature, languages, ethics and law.

With half the states no longer requiring civics education, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a crusader for civics, is quoted in the report: "If we don't take every generation of young people and make sure they understand that they are an essential part of government, we won't survive."

There is plenty of data to show how the humanities contribute to the economy, and how employers greatly value critical thinking in an increasingly integrated global economy. Beyond the statistics, however, the humanities light the intellectual fire that makes a job or profession worth doing.

The new report urges Congress to stop the erosion of funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the grassroots work of the state humanities councils.

Yet this report arrives just as leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives is proposing cuts so deep to the NEH - 49 percent - as to cripple the agency's effectiveness and threaten the existence of the nonprofit state humanities councils.

As the major source of support for the Idaho Humanities Council (IHC), funds from the NEH reach into every congressional district in America, and all corners of Idaho. And Idahoans are hungry for humanities programming.

This summer the IHC involved more than 100 K-12 teachers in workshops examining Idaho territorial history. Past IHC summer teacher institutes have explored the presidencies of Lincoln and Jefferson, the history of the Cold War, the Constitution, the literature of Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Willa Cather, Native American literature, and more.

This year, the IHC has sponsored reading programs for the public in Hailey, Coeur d'Alene, Boise and Idaho Falls (and this fall in Twin Falls), exploring the theme "Making Sense of the American Civil War." In February, more than 100 participated in the five-meeting program in Idaho Falls alone - and participants are asking for more.

More rural libraries sign up every year to participate in Idaho's "Let's Talk About It" reading program than the IHC can afford to involve. A partnership of the IHC, the Idaho Commission for Libraries and U.S. Bank Foundation, the 2013-2014 series will make possible 80 programs in 16 libraries from Bonners Ferry to Preston.

Hundreds attend the IHC's annual Distinguished Humanities Lectures with nationally recognized writers, biographers, journalists and historians in Boise, Coeur d'Alene and Idaho Falls every year.

Thousands visit Smithsonian traveling exhibitions that the IHC annually brings to Idaho museums and libraries. More than 5,000 attended IHC Speakers Bureau lectures in 2012.

IHC grants offer essential support to museums, libraries, teachers, colleges and universities, and other organizations every year.

The list goes on.

The legislation that created the NEH in 1965 states, "Democracy demands wisdom." The humanities teach empathy, reason, tolerance and civility - ingredients sorely lacking in public dialogue today, but essential to a civil society. The humanities lift the lamp toward a meaningful life, and we need that light now more than ever.

Rick Ardinger is the executive director of the Idaho Humanities Council.

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