Recently U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Budget Committee, raised questions about a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) program providing grants to university professors who want to develop courses based around such questions as “What is the meaning of life?” and “What is the good life and how do I live it?”
He was also bothered that the NEH granted professors funds to study Islam. Sessions believes that taxpayer money should not be used to support subjects related to questions that are “indefinite” or that favor one religion over another.
The House of Representatives’ Budget Committee agrees with Sessions.
In its fiscal 2014 budget resolution, the committee called for a complete elimination of funding for the NEH based on the belief that the federal government should not be in the business of supporting humanities-based research. In the end, the committee let the NEH live, but elected to slash its budget by 49 percent.
President Barack Obama seems to be on board with the backlash against the humanities. When it comes to education funding, President Obama continues to throw all his weight behind the so-called “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, math) disciplines.
All of this could prove to be quite tragic for the future of our country. We seem to have forgotten that in order for a democracy to thrive citizens need to learn how to live together with their differences. A democracy needs people who understand that their own pursuits of happiness must always operate in tension with their obligations to the larger community.
Such a commitment to the common good requires citizens who are able to respect those with whom they might disagree on some of life’s most important issues.
As conservative Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon puts it: “A democratic republic needs an adequate supply of citizens who are skilled in the arts of deliberation, compromise, consensus-building, and reason-giving.”
I think it is safe to say in light of the antics surrounding our recent government shutdown that we have failed miserably in sustaining the virtues we need to keep our democratic republic afloat.
Pundits and politicians are full of answers for how to get us back on track, while others seem to be content with the ongoing culture wars and see no problem with the virtual collapse of civil society in the United States. But I can’t help but think that Congress’s recent funding choices may have something to do with our current malaise.
Let’s take my own discipline of history. An encounter with the past on its own terms, in all its fullness, can teach us skills that are necessary for contributing to our life together. By ridding ourselves of our obsession with the present moment in which we live we learn how to empathize with people who are different.
We learn to step outside of ourselves and walk in someone else’s shoes, even if that person is long dead. History teaches us to understand before condemning, listen to the voices of the past through the documents left behind before judging them, and to understand people on their terms, not ours.
As Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis notes, history “dethrones” us “from our original position at the center of the universe.” The study of the past humbles us. As we begin to see our lives as part of a community made up of both the living and the dead, we may also start to see our neighbors (and our enemies) in a different light.
We may even want to listen to their ideas, empathize with them, and try to make sense of why they see the world in the way they do. We may even want to have a conversation (or two) with them. And in the process we may even find that there is much we hold in common. We may even recognize some of our own flaws.
Granted, STEM disciplines are absolutely essential for our capitalist economy to function. But we must ask ourselves whether the kind of training necessary for a thriving economy is the same kind of training necessary for a thriving democracy.
The study of the humanities may not have a direct impact on our gross national product, but without subjects such as history we are in danger of losing our democratic soul.
John Fea chairs the History Department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg. He is the author of Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, 2013).