COMMENTARY: What are the Humanities and why should we care?

The Humanities are often called “the thinking arts.” They include history, literature, philosophy, comparative religion, archaeology, architectural history, anthropology, ethics, folklore and folklife, jurisprudence, languages, linguistics, political science, and the history, criticism and theory of art.

This may sound pretty effete, until you realize that the Port Penn Marshland Festival; public programs studying Delaware’s role in the Underground Railroad; oral history interviews with Vietnam vets; and library and community programs throughout the state from Laurel to Lewes, Harrington to Hockessin, Felton, Delaware City, Stanton, Claymont, and beyond, have all benefited from Humanities funding.

If you have ever heard Ed Okonowicz’s ghost stories, or seen Willis Phelps in the role of Civil War Private James H. Elbert, C Company, 8th United States Colored Troops, or any of the other Delaware Humanities Forum’s Speaker Bureau members’ talks, you know the magic of the Humanities, and you know the price is right.

The Humanities connect us to each other and help us examine our place in the world. They aren’t partisan. The Humanities are for everyone — and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), like the Delaware Humanities Forum (DHF), ensures that rural, suburban and urban residents have equal access to the world of ideas. Thanks to the New York State Council on the Humanities, kids in Smithville Flats, New York, where I grew up (population 19 people per square mile), had the same access to the work of Ken Burns as did my peers in Albany or New York City; and so did you, living here in Delaware.

The NEH’s total annual budget has held steady in recent years at $148 million, a small portion of the federal budget that is used very effectively and efficiently. The money invested in the National Endowment for the Humanities, and consequently, to the states, leverages other monies, both public and private.

Kim Burdick

Humanities funding is disbursed through a competitive grant application process. Each grant application is reviewed by volunteers who serve on statewide committees. The number of volunteer hours and other in-kind services, and matching cash provided by an organization seeking funding, are all taken into consideration before any grant is awarded.

As the Indiana Humanities Council has pointed out, “We understand the desire for a budget that balances, and we know tough choices must be made. We also know that this proposed cut to the NEH (and other important cultural organizations) would do more harm than good.

Cutting the NEH will save $148 million. By some calculations, this represents .0001 percent of federal spending — roughly equivalent to what the government spends on copy paper and paper clips.”

Fairly recently, a Republican was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Jim Leach, former congressman from Iowa, served until 2013. During his tenure at NEH, Leach conducted “the American Civility Tour” to call attention to the need to restore reason and civility back into politics, a goal that in his words was “central to the Humanities.” Leach visited each of the 50 states, speaking at venues ranging from university and museum lecture halls to veterans’ hospitals, to support the return of non-emotive, civil exchange and rational consideration of other viewpoints.

Leach said: “Little is more important … than establishing an ethos of thoughtfulness and decency of expression in the public square. Words reflect emotion as well as meaning. They clarify — or cloud — thought and energize action, sometimes bringing out the better angels in our nature, sometimes lesser instincts.” We could all use a little more of Leach’s civility today.

Thank you for your support as we work to ensure the future of Humanities funding throughout our nation and our state. Now, more than ever, we need the Humanities in our schools and in our communities. Please contact your state and local elected officials today to let them know you support both NEH and DHF, and tell them “Thanks for all you do!”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Kim Burdick is chairwoman emerita of the Delaware Humanities Forum

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