Gilbert: The Case for Humanities

Aug 9, 2013

An impressive commission that included Ken Burns, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, George Lucas, Yo-Yo Ma, eminent scholars, university presidents, and corporate leaders recently released a report commissioned by Congress. It’s entitled The Heart of the Matter, The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation.

Among other things, it explains why the humanities are important, not just desirable, but essential. Its argument in support of, or in defense of, the humanities has been the subject of numerous articles, essays, and editorials nationwide in the last month. That’s good because we need a broader consensus and deeper understanding that the humanities are essential to our nation.

For most of our country’s history, it wasn’t necessary to explain why the humanities were important. It was taken for granted; it was self-evident. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln all understood that history and literature, philosophy and ethics, reflection and lifelong learning are fundamental; they’re the stuff that can contribute to judgment, wisdom, and vision, not to mention character, culture, and civil society.

It was the humanities that our Founding Fathers and Lincoln read by the light of candle or fire? It was the humanities that you find in McGuffey’s Readers and similar school primers that were found in America’s schools for generations: literature, philosophy, and history, especially biographies. Biographies provided exemplars of good lives and good leaders, and cautionary tales about the opposite, like Caesar and Macbeth, to take examples from both history and literature.

American leaders in previous generations acted on their keen understanding that a nation that doesn’t know its past cannot sustain its ideals for long; we may understand that today, but we don’t act on it. We don’t put our money where our mouths are (in funding the National Endowment for the Humanities, for example), and we don’t, as people say these days, walk the walk.

Last year I had the privilege of speaking to some members of the Commission, and to my surprise, I found something I said as the quotation that begins the Report’s chapter about Cultural Institutions and Lifelong Learning. I made two points: first, it’s hard for schools to succeed if the society of which they are a part doesn’t honor learning and encourage curiosity. And second, not even the best schools imaginable can teach students all they need to know. And so if learning stops when formal schooling stops, then the knowledge and understanding of America’s workforce and citizenry will be inadequate by any measure.

That’s what the National Endowment for the Humanities and its state affiliates, like the Vermont Humanities Council, do: they encourage curiosity and lifelong learning; they contribute to healthy communities that celebrate the world of ideas. Surely conservatives and progressives alike can agree that our nation’s well-being requires an educated citizenry that knows the country’s history. Few things are more conservative than conveying ideas and culture from one generation to the next And few things are more important to continuing the progressive work of forming “a more perfect Union” than understanding our past.