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“Perspective: The Principal Legacy of the Humanities”

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

American Association of Colleges and Universities Washington, DC
United States

January 22, 2010

Perspective is often the most difficult thing to bring to events and circumstances. As the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, I have been asked to address the role of the humanities in the context of our history and the challenges in higher education today.

I’d like to begin with a hypothetical.

What would happen if a great country found itself in a traumatic war in which a profound cultural division existed and both sides cited religious convictions as a rationalization for their cause? What if the smaller side so successfully employed asymmetric tactics that the top military commander of the great power requested an additional 50,000 troops? How should the president of the great power respond?  How should he respond when the country is also dealing with the human toll from the war, a deteriorating infrastructure, growing social discord, and ongoing concerns about social equality and educational opportunities?  

As you might suspect, we have a model. On July 2, 1862, Abraham Lincoln telegraphed General McClellan that his troop request was “absurd.” On the same day, Lincoln signed into law the Transcontinental Railway Act and a law banning polygamy in Utah. To prove that a president can skip rope and chew gum at the same time, he also signed the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which gave states the financial resources to establish colleges and universities. The goal, as stated in the legislation, was to “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”

The Morrill Act, matched only perhaps by the GI Bill, transformed the educational opportunities available to Americans. The driving force behind the establishment of land-grant colleges was the idea that the American people should have pubic educational opportunities where they lived. Politicians like Senator Justin Smith Morrill, who sponsored the bill, and educational reformer Jonathan Baldwin Turner, who led a popular movement in favor it, did not believe that education should be the province of the well-to-do. Nor did they believe that someone from Wisconsin should have to trek to the East Coast to get a quality education. 

It is not surprising that Lincoln would sign such a bill. Prior to running for president, Lincoln told the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society that book-learning is the critical leveler. “A capacity, and taste, for reading,” he said, “gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others. It is the key, or one of the keys to the already solved problems. And … gives a relish, and facility, for successfully pursuing the unsolved ones.” He went on to say that “education—cultivated thought—...combined ... with ‘thorough’ work ... conforms to what must occur in a world less inclined to wars, and more devoted to the arts of peace....”

Lincoln’s investment in education during a time of national peril showed a measure of forethought.  It was an investment in the future.  It was an acknowledgment that education should not be for the few, but for the many.  It provided successive generations with the tools to make sense of the world around them – with a sense for values and the perspective of history.

Today, as in Lincoln’s time, we are living in a country that faces profound challenges of identity, security, and equality. Like Lincoln, who was self-educated in the classics, our current president is an individual who has been shaped by his study of history and the humanities. And like Lincoln, this president is committed to expanding access to education and to bringing people together. In an echo of Lincoln, he recently noted that “creativity and a thirst for understanding are the fuel that has fed our nation’s success for centuries....”

Yet for a variety of reasons institutions of higher education are facing difficult times, and within them the humanities are being constrained most of all. Shrinking endowments, budget cuts at state legislatures, and a weakened philanthropic community are taking their toll. In addition, students are increasingly choosing what they consider to be job-centric disciplines. Academic administrators are assessing departments as to whether they are profit centers, or at least not too costly.

Despite and in some ways because of the challenging economic situation, the case for investing anew in higher education and thus our own citizens is compelling, particularly if institutions re-energize the humanities as they continue to propel technology and the sciences.

In coupling “creativity” with a “thirst for understanding,” the President implicitly affirms that education is more than mastering numbers and memorizing facts. Knowledge without creativity is a barren state. “Imagination,” as Einstein once said, “is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world.” Einstein himself was a living embodiment of the imaginative mind, trumping “skill-set” exclusivity. He was considered the greatest physicist of the modern and perhaps any era, but in a math-based science, he was not considered a first-tier mathematician. Instead, he was an unparalleled “imaginist.”

Of all the disciplines, the humanities do the most to tap into and expand the imagination. Literature, art, history, religion, and philosophy give meaning to our concepts of justice and goodness, and shape our sense of beauty. They invite us to ask questions and seek answers.

Never have the humanities been so important. Thought that has not been imbued with imagination cannot cope with the rapid, unprecedented change we see all around us today. To fail to study history, to refuse to learn from literature, and to deny the lessons of philosophy are to imprison our thoughts in the here and now. Thus do we magnify the misjudgments of our contemporaries, shutting ourselves off from the wisdom and, likewise, the mistakes of others in the near and ancient past.

The novels by British author Lawrence Durrell serve as an example of both perspective and imagination. In a set of four books called the “Alexandria Quartet,” Durrell describes urban life in Egypt between the first and second World Wars. In the first book, Durrell spins a story through the eyes of an Englishman, a schoolmaster and struggling writer. In each subsequent book, Durrell describes the same events from the perspective of another character. The surrounding events are the same, but each telling is profoundly different, informed by the narrator’s life and circumstances. The moral is that to get a sense of reality it is necessary to see things from more than one set of eyes. This moral can apply to interactions in a classroom or courtroom or town hall. It is particularly prescient to the international stage, where what America does may seem reasonable from our perspective but look very different to a European, African, Middle Easterner, or Asian.

Adding the eyes and ears of others to one’s own capacities illuminates rather than narrows judgment. Let’s consider the current position of the United States. We are currently engaged in military conflict in two countries more than a third of the way around the world, each with a unique set of problems. Our engagement in South Asia is a result of an anarchist attack on our shores plotted by terrorists from mountainous redoubts. Our engagement in the Middle East was undertaken against a country that was not involved in the plot against America but was mistakenly thought to be on the verge of developing weapons of mass destruction.

In making assumptions about the wisdom and the manner of intervening in the affairs of other countries, would it be helpful for policy makers to review the history of the French colonial experience in Algeria, the British and Russian experience in Afghanistan, the French and U.S. experience in Vietnam—before rather than after—a decision to go to war?

Would it be useful to study the differences between and within the world’s great religions? And would any aspects of our own colonial history be relevant to decision making—the asymmetric tactics, for instance, of Francis Marion, the South Carolina patriot known as the Swamp Fox, who attacked the best trained army in the world at night and then vanished into impenetrable swamps during the day?

Given the cost and legacy burdens of recent American foreign policy, the answer would appear to be self-evident.

But the scholarship and materials needed to engage in such discussions do not spring fully formed like Athena from Zeus’ head. It requires the work of scholars who are trained in foreign languages, scholars who will dig through musty archives, scholars who will ask big and sometimes daunting questions. It requires the expertise of the very people who work and teach at your universities.

Perspective must be continually cultivated and renewed.  To enhance our understanding of America’s diverse heritage and the history, language, and art of other societies, NEH has launched an initiative that I have labeled “Bridging Cultures.”

NEH has a long history of helping make the history and culture of other nations available to scholars and the American public.  The Endowment has funded popular museum exhibitions—ranging from the treasures of King Tut’s tomb to imperial Chinese art to the lost art treasures of Afghanistan. We have funded conferences on religious tolerance, the international phenomenon of secession, and global perspectives on the Crusades. Documentaries have taken us into battle with Napoleon, across the seas with Columbus, and into the Senate of ancient Rome. With NEH support, scholars have produced important books that expand our understanding of Russian and Chinese history, Latino-American art, and the experience of African Americans and other minorities in this country.  Reference works, such as the Encyclopedia Iranica and the China Biographical Database, provide access to other cultures.  Archival and art collections have been preserved so that we and future generations can learn from them.

Through the Bridging Cultures, NEH intends to carry on this tradition while providing new opportunities for research, teaching, and learning.

As part of Bridging Cultures, I have embarked on what has been dubbed a  “civility tour,” which will take me to all fifty states. 

The concept of civility implies politeness, but civil discourse is about more than good etiquette. At its core, civility requires respectful engagement: a willingness to consider other views and place them in the context of history and life experiences.  It’s about building bridges of understanding between you and your neighbor, between political parties, between the United States and the world.

I have been to six states so far and in my travels I have witnessed a hunger for reasoned discourse about the problems confronting our country.  Maintaining a measure of thoughtfulness in the public square is vital to the health of our democracy. Words reflect emotion as well as meaning. They clarify – or cloud. They energize action. They bring out the better angels in our nature and sometimes lesser instincts.

Recent comments on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives have gathered much attention, but vastly more rancorous, socially divisive assertions are being made across the land. Public officials are being labeled “fascist” or “communist.” And more bizarrely, significant public figures have toyed with the notion of “secession.”

One might ask, What problem is there with a bit of hyperbole? The logic, to paraphrase literary critic Marshall McLuhan’s observation about the media, is the message.

If 400,000 American soldiers sacrificed their lives to defeat fascism, if tens of thousands more gave their lives to hold communism at bay, and if we fought a civil war to preserve the Union, isn’t it a citizen’s obligation to apply perspective to words that contain warring implications? There is, after all, a difference between supporting a particular spending or health-care view and asserting that someone who prefers another approach or is a member of a different political party is an advocate of an “ism” of hate that encompasses gulags and concentration camps. One framework of thought defines rival ideas; the other, enemies.

Citizenship is hard. It takes a commitment to listen, watch, read, and think in ways that allow the imagination to put one person in the shoes of another. Words matter. Stirring anger and playing on the irrational fears of citizens inflames hate. When coupled with character assassination, polarizing rhetoric can exacerbate intolerance, perhaps impelling violence.

Conversely, just as demagoguery can jeopardize social cohesion and even public safety, healing language such as Lincoln’s call for a new direction “with malice toward none” can uplift and help bring society and the world closer together.

To help raise the level of discourse in the country, it is vital that the public and policy makers be informed. That is where colleges and universities and their faculty are so fundamental to society. 

A monk contemplating alone in a cave may be admirable, but wisdom that isn’t shared is noiseless thought in the forest of human kind.  

Here I want to conclude with an observation about perspective, which I consider to be the principal legacy of the humanities, and at the risk of presumption, comment on events of this week.

The humanities are about ideals as well as ideas, and I would suggest that seldom in our modern-day democracy have both notions been more in evidence than these past three days.

This is a week of contrasts reflecting the power of the people and the power of the court – one turning somewhat populist, the other definitively oligarchic.

In a single state (Massachusetts), in a special election for a single office, the people have spoken. The election was, as in all elections, about a combination of  issues and personalities.  But far more than most it reflected angst about our times and the underlying spirit of modern politics.  It was a cry for change that could only be evidenced against the “ins,” whether or not they were responsible for the underlying difficulties in American life and the complicated circumstances where so many policy options have imperfect dimensions.

The irony is that the election of a “41st” minority party senator underscores the rule-handicapped, non-Constitutionally envisioned, somewhat anarchistic and increasingly dysfunctional ways of the world’s most important legislative body.

But the importance of the Massachusetts election may prove fleeting compared with the Supreme Court ruling yesterday, which may be the worst for democracy since the Dred Scott decision. 

The Constitution of the United States begins with “We the People,” not “We the Corporations.” 

Except perhaps in the context of commercial law, it defies democratic values to equate a corporation with an individual.

In every election, controversy surfaces as to whether a court should be activist or “strictly constructionist.”  What could be more activist than this ruling?  Where is the Constitutional wording that suggests that a corporation is a person, that “money” and “speech” should be equated?  There is certain court precedent in the 1976 case of Buckley v. Valeo which holds that individuals cannot be denied the right to put whatever amounts of their own money in campaigns on the assumption that “money” is “speech.”  But the same question rises: Where in the Constitution, in the Federalist papers or Webster’s is “money” defined as “speech?”

As a former Member of Congress, I used to introduce in a Don Quixote-like fashion a Constitutional amendment which was the only way I knew to overturn this aspect of the Buckley case.  Because the ruling was rooted in anti-democratic, oligarchic values, making our society vulnerable to the politics of billionaires, the amendment I proffered stipulated that Congress could place limits on what an individual could donate to a campaign for national office and the state legislators could put limits on what a candidate for state or local office could donate to their campaigns.  Now, based on yesterday’s ruling, I would suggest that this amendment be advanced with the addition of the precept that legislative bodies be authorized to put limits on what corporations or their equivalents can donate to campaigns.

Unfortunately, amendments to the Constitution are the only public policy methodology to overturn Supreme Court rulings.   But there is also a private sector one.  What is needed is an interest group arms-control agreement.  Heads of American corporations and unions should come together and form a compact not to give campaign contributions. 

The challenge for each side is that corporations do not want to be politically disarmed relative to union power, and unions, vice versa.  Likewise, corporations have competitive interests in relation to other corporations and do not want to be disadvantaged.  If a court doesn’t understand public values, should not the private sector lead?

At issue is the fundamental nature of democracy.  

Thank you.