Skip to main content

In Focus

Dorothy Schwartz of Maine

By Richard Carter | HUMANITIES, July/August 2000 | Volume 21, Number 4

Dorothy Schwartz, director of the Maine Humanities Council, speaks passionately about renewing our civic culture.

She takes her cue from that observer of the American scene, Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote in Democracy in America, "If men are to remain civilized, or are to become civilized, the art of association must develop and improve among them at the same speed as equality of conditions spreads."

For Schwartz, de Tocqueville's ideas have become the cornerstone upon which civic renewal is to be built. Specifically, she asks, what is the council's role in the civic life of the state and how does it fill it now and in the future?

Schwartz, who has been with the Maine council since 1981, and director since 1985, says that the watershed years of 1994-95 forced her and the Maine council to reevaluate its mission and role in the state. Those were the years when NEH funding was drastically cut. The state councils underwent a transformation and are still evolving into a role that marries the humanities to public policy and involvement in people's lives, Schwartz says. "With decreased funding from the NEH, we were forced to change our look," she adds. "It was then that we found a new synergy, a new opportunity to focus our attention on the role we played in Maine's civic life. We reevaluated our mission and purpose. It was all based on the belief that the humanities have an important role to play in the lives of people and communities."

Maine is a largely rural state with a population of 1.2 million people. Forty percent live in urban areas. Its traditional fishing and farming economies have been replaced by a service economy. But large pockets of people have been left behind in a burgeoning economy. Literacy and low reading and math skills for many children are nagging problems. Among the fifty states, it has among the lowest rates of high school graduates going on to college.

Fearing that many people in Maine didn't understand what the council did, Schwartz and the council set about trying to unravel some of the complexity. "We had to give a message to the public that was understandable and provide programs that reached people directly. We came up with a description of the Maine council: "The Power and Pleasure of Ideas."

The next task was to build on that idea and fashion programs that were community-driven, Schwartz notes.

The approach was in some ways radical, Schwartz says. "We were not talking about a thin cultural veneer of accomplishment. We proposed nothing less than using the power of the humanities to make sure that every Maine student is educated not simply as a technician, but as a complete human being. We want every Maine community to draw strength from the richness of its roots. We want every Maine child to grow up surrounded by books and people talking about ideas."

Schwartz says that one of the most important goals for the council was to identify who the council was not serving and who was most in need.

The Maine council began a partnering relationship with state and federal agencies to identify those communities and determine how the council's programs could be fashioned to address their needs. Out of this grew the Maine Center for the Book and the Born to Read program, which receives funds from the Americorps Agency and uses retired volunteers to read to children. There are business and corporate partnerships, like one with Fleet Bank that places book drops in all of the bank's fifty-four branches in Maine, and another about literature and medicine that puts the humanities at the heart of health care. "Today we are serving a much larger community," says Schwartz, who adds that she knows from the council's work with the Maine Youth Center that the humanities have the ability to change people's lives.

Partnering has brought new vigor to the council. Two years ago it brought the first funding from the state itself. "To get state funds we had to fashion a message to the legislature that clearly set out what we wanted to do," says Schwartz. "We joined forces with six other agencies--the state library, state museum, the arts commission, the state archives, Maine's historic preservation commission, and the Maine Historical Society--to present a combined initiative to get one lump sum from the legislature. Our initiative was called the 'New Century Program' and we proposed to address three areas of concern: to preserve the cultural heritage of Maine, to provide access to Maine's cultural resources, and to expand educational access for Maine citizens. Part of our proposal to the legislature was that public funds would be used specifically for programs, not for any administrative costs."

The idea of civic renewal has gone beyond the borders of Maine. As a board member of the Federation of State Humanities Councils, Schwartz has been instrumental in securing a grant from the Lilly Endowment that will offer all the state councils the means "to renew their commitment to civic leadership and identify ways to stimulate the same effort in other organizations and networks of which they are part." "It will allow us," she says, "to reflect and reexamine that very basic question of what our role is in the state."