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The Power of the Humanities

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

American Council of Learned Societies Philadelphia, PA
United States

May 11, 2012

Distinguished scholars, colleagues at the National Endowment for the Humanities:

I come this afternoon to report on the state of the humanities from the perspective of a small federal agency with an inspiring billion word track record.  In our short existence NEH supported research has resulted in thousands of books and scholarly treatises, dozens of which have been awarded Pulitzer or Bancroft prizes.  We have also supported numerous award-winning documentaries and museum exhibitions and, through 56 affiliated state and territorial councils, have become the largest humanities outreach organization in the world.  

My thesis is that we Americans radically underestimate the pervasive power of the humanities. Despite their criticality to citizenship, to American national security, to increasing the store of cultural knowledge, society is beginning to undervalue a host of humanities disciplines at a time when they have never been more important.

In advancing this thesis about the power of ideas, I would like to begin by emphasizing national security concerns. Educated Americans are well aware of Samuel Huntington’s warning that conflicts in the future could increasingly be between civilizations rather than nation-states and of Joe Nye’s focus on the importance of “soft power” – i.e., political values and cultural outreach – in relations between states.  These are perceptive frameworks of thought.  But, at the risk of presumption, I would suggest an enhanced perspective should be applied to both themes. 

Huntington’s warning and Nye’s focus are inseparable concepts, magnifying each other. Huntington’s insight that religious and other cultural attributes in various parts of the world embody distinct ways of thinking and relating that define cohesive civilizations which, if misunderstood and disrespected, can lead to cataclysmic clashes gives compelling immediacy to Nye’s call for broadening understanding through values and cultural outreach.  But Nye’s application of the adjective “soft” to “power” in his otherwise persuasive policy prescription is a misnomer. Nothing is more powerful than culture.  And little is more risky than implying with a weak term that cultural considerations may only be entitled to ancillary status in geo-political decision-making.  

“Cultural power” rather than “soft power” is the moniker that should be engaged and brought to the forefront of policy discussions for three reasons:

  1. Because it is more compelling and descriptive than “soft power;”
  2. Because it highlights the importance of exchanges in ideas and the creative arts between nation-states;
  3. Because the United States as the first country to be founded on ideas—those of the Enlightenment—has an enviable position from which to project.

This last consideration doesn’t mean that other countries or, as Huntington would have it, civilizations, don’t also have cultural attributes to underscore. But the notion of focusing on cultural power would concentrate peoples and policy makers on the positive, rather than coercive dimensions of relations between peoples.

It would also help propel a serious review of cultural factors in strategic planning if use of force became a necessary option. 

One of the myths of our time is that realism is principally about might.  Actually, realism is about the human condition.  If national security is to be secured, peoples and their concerns in various parts of the world must be understood in compassionate terms whereever possible.   Where there is no mutual regard and minimal hope for a better future, there is little to lose.  And if life, as Hobbes so imaginatively described, becomes nasty, brutish and short in a jungle of hopelessness and humiliation, it too easily becomes expendable, sometimes through martyrdom.

When policy makers from one place assume they can interact effectively with leaders of other places without understanding their history and culture, errors of judgment are inevitable.

This is not a casual concern. The times are perilous. Civilization is on trial from two extremes:  the looming prospect that weapons of mass destruction might be unleashed, and the reality that the more advanced and open a society the more vulnerable it is to terrorism.

The health of nations is directly related to the temperance of statecraft.  Seldom has it been more important for individuals in public life to inspire hope rather than manipulate fear, to appeal to the better angels rather than the baser instincts of their own and other body politics.  Whether the issues are social or economic, domestic or international, the temptation to appeal to the darker side of human nature must be avoided. The stakes are too high.  

Unfortunately, politics in democracies has increasingly become more a salesman’s than statesman’s craft.  As important as controversies of the day, politics of the moment, may be, they are generally surface concerns. To understand problems on the surface it is necessary to know the depths below: the history and culture of a society or region. Considerations related to history and culture must be part and parcel of decision-making when addressing fundamental questions such as how to prevent conflict; how to determine what kind of policies, including the prospect of use of force, may be prudent; how, if force is necessary, to use it wisely and effectively; how to end conflict on a credible basis; and how to create a sustaining, cooperative relationship in the wake of conflict.

For decades military strategists have wisely talked of the need to think through the hazards of exit strategies when war is contemplated.  But concerns about how to end a war seldom get more than passing attention when planning for actual warfare commences.  To the degree exit strategies are initially considered, hypothetical planning generally encompasses institutional and logistical concerns without cultural considerations.  Yet, to lead the world in this century it is the human condition, the minds and memories of peoples, that has to be appreciated.

In reviewing, for example, our decision to go to war in Iraq it is extraordinary how inadequate attention to cultural issues cost lives, dollars, and reputation. Yes, there was an “intelligence” failure related to misjudgments about Iraq’s alleged nuclear and biological weapons capacities.  But the greatest “intelligence” failure was our lack of understanding of the region itself.   Despite having gone to war in the Persian Gulf a decade earlier, Congress and Executive branch policy makers understood little of the complexities of Islamic societies, especially the Sunni/Shi’a divide, when 9/11 hit. 

Likewise, despite the French experience in Algeria and the difficulties confronted by the British and Russians in Afghanistan, we had little comprehension of the depth of Islamic antipathy to foreign occupation.  And, despite the tactics of a Daniel Boone-style patriot named Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, who attacked British garrisons at night during the Revolutionary War and then vanished in South Carolina swamps during the day, we had little sense for the effectiveness of asymmetric warfare.

Americans must awake from historical slumber.  A renewed emphasis on the study of various humanities disciplines, especially history, is vital because of our unique role in the world and because academic testing tells us that Americans have more limited historical and geographic knowledge than virtually any other advanced society.  In this circumstance we must ask ourselves:

How do we understand our own country and people, our place and our values, if we don’t study American history?  How do we come to understand how others think and apply logic to challenges of the moment if we don’t have a sense for the world? 

At our best we Americans reason pragmatically while many on the planet reason more historically.  When presented a quandary involving public policy or personal action, others often think first of how their ancestors addressed analogous challenges. They rely on social experience as the principal guide to current action. 

Perhaps because we are a young country and have a propensity to be future oriented, Americans tend to stress the pragmatic. We make “on the one hand” and “on the other” kinds of calculations often unrelated to experiential considerations before reaching a judgment.  Both the historical and pragmatic approach to decision making has merit.  Depending on the issue, the most effective method may involve a combination. But it is important for Americans to recognize as we deal with others that many people around the world reason differently as well as have different historical experiences. 

Mutual understanding requires both a sense of self and of the other.                                          

A smart person, we are frequently told, learns from his own mistakes. Of greater relevance, perhaps, is a corollary: A really smart person learns from the mistakes of others.   

To look presciently forward we have no choice except to look carefully back.

Every circumstance is, of course, different than any that came before.  We don’t ever walk in exactly the same way in the same physical or social environment.  People and situations change. Hence it is important to think imaginatively as well as pragmatically and historically.  There are many ways to stimulate the imagination, from reading literature, studying and creating art, to reviewing history. But the lynchpins that most often tie other studies together are history and story-telling, oral and written. No disciplines outside the humanities more effectively allow us to put on the shoes of others in past ages and different circumstances.

St. Paul once suggested that we all look through a glass darkly.  Metaphorically, Paul may have made the ultimate case for humility.   While faith may be absolute, man simply doesn’t have the capacity to know the will of God or apply perfectly the wisdom of His apostles on earth.  An analogous lack of certitude should be applied to history. There can be clarity about certain historical facts like names and dates but the whys and wherefores of events can be elusive.  It is no accident that history can be more controversial than current events.  Nonetheless, despite the fog that always hovers over memory, it is clear that the deeper our understanding of the past, the greater our capacity to cope with the present and mold the future. 

Life of society and the individual is a continuum.  History may be the story of the dead but it never dies. It continues to shape who we are and how we think. 

Because the humanities are about the present as well as the past, it is important to apply perspective to how we interact with others, near and far. Cultural outreach is important, not only in the academy and public arena, but across a broad swath of citizenry. Here the evidence is in that various kinds of travel exchanges make a difference in the lives of individuals, in academic understanding, and in the manner personal ties can impact relations between societies.  Modern communication – the speed of travel and the virtually instantaneous capacity to transfer individual thought great distances – have made potential neighbors of every citizen on the planet.  But understanding and trust are not as easily elevated as technology is upgraded.

While technology provides a means to advance mutual understanding, it also gives an opportunity for purveyors of narrow ideologies to attract followers and in some countries censure and monopolize news and even control the writing of history itself. Rubbing up against neighbors who have different manners and different ways of speaking can sometimes spark friction.  That is why exchanges that allow participants to join those who see the same or different things with eyes trained from nurture and perhaps nature to see in different ways make such a difference. 

Another one of the myths of our times is that relations between countries are principally a function of government policy and that diplomacy is exclusively a government-to-government dialogue. Actually, it is businessmen and businesswomen, unelected people of good will -- be they artists or scientists, athletes, students, or scholars in the humanities -- who are usually more integral to defining the tone of relations between states than public officials.  What is sometimes referred to as citizen diplomacy generally precedes and increasingly supersedes government-to-government contact.  That is why immersion in humanities studies is as important for private citizens as public policy makers.

Governments in their relations with each other understandably dwell on power and security challenges, especially in a fractured world.  Citizen diplomacy, on the other hand, is more about the centrality of values and the breadth of the human spirit.  And, importantly, in the business world, it is about seeking mutual advantage, common interests.

Since there will always be disagreements between people, the challenge is to see that they are resolved in civil, rather than coercive, ways. 

Whether violence is an integral element of the human condition or a learned response is a matter of conjecture. But non-violence is almost certainly a practice that must be learned.  And the most effective form of social education is a combination of academic studies and human contact where greater understanding is mutually sought. 

It is the humanization rather than the demonization of individuals from different cultures, particularly cultures that are most unlike and/or embody the greatest prospect of “enemy” status that is so critical if non-violent approaches to problem solving are to be institutionalized.  If people are to develop mutual respect, values must be brought to bear on a human scale. Without humanization – cultural respect and handshakes of understanding -- there can be no trust and hence no family or national security.

Shelley once described poets as unacknowledged legislators. The great 19th Century American poet of the common man, Walt Whitman, went further and implied their authority stretched beyond traditional political realities.   Intoxicated with the notion that poetry could be an antidote to violence, he once wrote that his greatest dream was for “an internationality of poems and poets binding the lands of the earth closer than all treaties and diplomacy…”  

A third of the way around the world from Washington, D.C., Dostoevsky affirmed something similar: “Beauty,” he said, “will save the world.”

A third of the way around the world in the opposite direction, Confucius suggested that “when music and courtesy are better understood and appreciated, there will be no war.”

All of this sounds rather naïve but there are few people in the political realm who ever understood the human condition better than Shelley, Whitman, Dostoevsky and Confucius. 

I mention these great men of literature and philosophy because the thinking of man must be uplifted. Words and thought patterns matter.  When pieced together in the logic of works like Mein Kampf, they may be used to instill hate and divide, or they may, as in the poetry of Shelley and Whitman, the novels of Dostoevsky and the wisdom of Confucius, be used to reach out and unite.  These are our choices.

In making these choices, care has to be taken to recognize that seldom is there only one proper path determinable by one individual, one political party or one country.

Whether a person knows a great deal or very little, caution should be taken about being certain of very much.  To know a lot may be a preferable condition to knowing little, but the best and the brightest are not immune from great mistakes.  Imperfect judgment characterizes the human condition.  That is why humility is such a valued character trait, and why shared learning is such an important part of a civilized world polity.

Half a century ago, the British author Lawrence Durrell wrote a set of novels called the Alexandria Quartet.  Each one was a first person narrative covering the same cluster of minor events between the two world wars in Alexandria, Egypt.  An individual may wonder why read about the same happenings four different times?  It ends up that while the events are the same, the stories are quite different.  One person’s perspective proved to be only a snapshot of reality.  The moral Durrell implicitly sets forth is that a clear picture cannot be pieced together without looking through the lens of a multiplicity of eyes and experiences.  If such is the case in one town in one time frame, doesn’t it take many eyes and many perspectives to develop a bare inkling of understanding of a moving kaleidoscope of events?

At a meeting of the American Association of the Arts and Sciences Karl Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general who recently served as our ambassador to Afghanistan, spoke of touring an Afghan city which had been a center of Taliban activity.  One of the elders escorting him asked appreciatively what ever happened to “Ron,” an American AID worker who a decade earlier had designed and helped build an irrigation canal.  Another asked about “John,” possessor of a self-described “wild, carefree personality,” who had been a much-liked Peace Corps volunteer.  Now we are immersed in a conflict where American soldiers are handicapped.  They would love to help build schools and soccer fields but have no alternative except to don protective garb and ride in steel-encased vehicles unable to trust even small boys who might plant roadside IEDs.  

It is impossible not to be respectful of those who serve in such dangerous circumstances.  It is also impossible not to be impressed with the humanitarian work of so many Americans abroad, from faith based groups to the Peace Corps to the military.   A personal experience comes to mind.  Eight years ago, after Indonesia, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka were devastated by an earthquake-induced tsunami in the Indian Ocean, I was asked by the Speaker of the House to lead a Congressional delegation to examine our response to the natural disaster.  With news of the event our navy had dispatched the Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier from the Pacific Fleet, to assist.  Our delegation met on the carrier with the admiral in charge and I asked him what command he had given for the mission he had been assigned.  He said he wrestled with what to say.  He knew that the crews in the Pacific Fleet had enormous skills but no training for this kind of event.  So all he could appropriately muster was a two word order:  “Do Good.”  And they did, with great heart, using ingenuity and common sense.  The word of our navy’s thoughtful assistance became the talk of Asia. 

When I returned I wrote a letter to the Pentagon commending the admiral and the sailors and airmen in his command.  I suggested that the navy might consider establishing a small monument at Annapolis with two words carved in stone:  “Do Good.”

It is clear that national security involves more than military preparedness.  It begins at home, how we talk to and treat our neighbors.  The advancing of mutual respect is central to relations between peoples and states.  As an immigrant society with family ties to every country across the globe, we are watched closely.  How we assimilate elements of our own society affects whether peoples around the world view America as a beacon of hope and opportunity or a wellspring of prejudice. 

And how we conduct our politics is often as much of interest to others as ourselves. Despite a President exceptionally well regarded abroad, many foreigners have grave doubts about aspects of our foreign policy over the past decade.  And despite pride in our history and system, many Americans are embarrassed by the contentious gridlock in Washington.

For some, concern for civility seems either unimportant or sanctimonious. Actually, civility is an enduring virtue of civilized society. At issue is how individuals relate in community and how societies make decisions that can affect life on the planet.

In an American setting, citizens should be expected to disagree vigorously with each other and take their differences to the ballot box. But in the wake of elections, prevailing candidates, despite varying views and rival ambitions, should be expected to have the fortitude to work together for the common good.  A government of, by and for the people is obligated to conduct the nation’s business in a manner that respects contrasting views and those who hold them.  After all, in a society in which our political values are rooted in the assumption that all men are created equal, it inexorably follows that everyone’s views deserve a fair hearing.

Representative government was expected to have a hurly-burly dimension but it is hard to believe the founders could have foreseen the increasingly surreal world of modern Washington politics.  What is so troubling is that the judgmental differences that are worthy of respect are exacerbated by partisanship that undercuts the capacity of governing bodies to make viable decisions.  When too many look at politics as a game to win rather than challenge to lead, legislative chambers become dysfunctional, the economy destabilized, our leadership in the world questioned, and our capacity to advance the common good diminished.

Compromise may have once been the art of politics, but intransigence is the new prerequisite for candidates to seek and maintain office.  If a legislator in today’s environment chooses to compromise on an issue or take a stand different than his or her party, that legislator becomes vulnerable to an interest group-financed challenge, particularly in primary elections.  Outside power brokers and inside activists will insist that a “real” liberal or “real” conservative represent their preferred party. 

In Western civilization’s most prophetic poem, The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats observed that the center cannot hold “when the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  Yeats was reacting to the seemingly senseless carnage of World War I trench warfare.  But the chaos of modernity has produced a crisis of perspective as well as values that give his words contemporary relevance.

I stray into the politics of politics because political gridlock poses a challenge to national security just as it does to domestic tranquility and because the institutional shock of our times is the undercutting of our governance capacities by the principal balancing institution in our constitutional system – the Supreme Court.  In the most irresponsible decision since the 1857 Dred Scott ruling held that people of color could be bought and treated as property, the Court in Citizens United determined that corporations could intervene with their wallets directly in politics. 

The Court’s grant of massive new power to corporations changes the chemistry of governmental decision-making.  It genetically alters our democratic DNA, pushing American politics in an oligarchic, corporatist direction. 

Governance is about choice making, how to tax, what to spend.  Because the “how” impacts the “what” and vice-versa, changes in political dynamics are of extraordinary consequence in the determination of public priorities.   Education and research, including the humanities, are potentially affected.  So is national security.

Likewise, the build-up of debt, private as well as governmental, has both national security and domestic policy implications.  Indeed, Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has gone so far as to suggest that our national debt may currently be our greatest national security threat.  The debt issue is aggravated by the fact that the wars we have been fighting and the interventions we have been making in this new century are unique in history.  No shared sacrifice by the American people was called upon.  As citizens of the first country that has ever opted to “finance” war with tax cuts, Americans will have a multi-trillion dollar add-on to our debt service obligations.

Another myth of our times is that the humanities are good for the soul but irrelevant to the pocket book.   Actually they are central to the creation of jobs and long-term American competitiveness.  To compete in a global economy it is essential that Americans understand our own values as well as those of foreign cultures.  The basics – ‘readin, ‘ritin, ‘rithmatic – are critical but so are the disciplines that provide perspective and nourish innovative thinking.   

Humanities studies including the creative arts are disciplines that stretch the imagination and boost capacities to analyze and express.  Over this past Spring I have been arguing that they constitute a fourth necessary “R” which for lack of a better moniker I have dubbed “Reality.” The more globalized and change-intensive the times, the more important these Fourth “R” disciplines are.

Rote thinking is the hallmark of the status quo.  Stimulating the imagination is the key to the future. The principal rationale for the humanities may always be that they make the life of the brain broader and more interesting.  This rationale is so powerful that it too easily obscures the utilitarian case which is also compelling. 

How can we compete in our own markets if we don’t write, think and communicate well and understand our own culture and its enormous variety of subcultures; or abroad if we don’t understand foreign languages, histories and traditions?

How can we understand our own era and the place of our own values if we don’t understand other faith systems – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and the relationship of diverse religions to the Old and New Testaments?

How can we contain prejudice and counter forces of hatred if we don’t come to know more about each other?     

The most meaningful discovery in a liberal arts education is that everything is related to everything else, although we may not know it at the time.  Wisdom involves the tying together of threads of learning. The challenge is to discover and then correlate discoveries, the most important of which relate to perspective: values, methods of thinking and doing, rather than facts.

The insights provided by humanities disciplines and the judgmental capacity to think broadly and correlate cogently which they inculcate are not dismissible options for society. They are essential to revitalizing the American productive engine.  They help define and inspire citizenship, lessening the likelihood of mistake-making, in public policy as well as private life.

A skeptic once suggested that the humanities are little more than studies of flaws in human nature.  Actually they uplift on the one hand and warn on the other. The power of a few to commit acts of social destruction and the contrasting capacity of a few to precipitate uplifting change has grown exponentially in the last century. A race is on. It is humanities studies that provide hope and give an edge to those who seek to advance constructive change.

Only despots fear the humanities. Take the example of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Like would-be thought controllers before him, he purged all humanities courses from any content not approved by theocratic censors.  The humanities are anathema to tyrants precisely because they are specifically intended to liberate the mind, which is harder to incarcerate than the body. The will of a people interested in exploring ideas, self-rule, and self-expression cannot forever be held in check.  It was, after all, the singular leadership of a shipyard electrician in Poland, a poet/playwright in Czechoslovakia, a Pope in Rome and poorly armed tribesmen in Afghanistan who sparked the ousting of what was then the world’s most powerful totalitarian state. 

In Western Europe there has been a trend among intellectuals over the past decade to make unflattering analogies between American leaders and figures in Greek tragedies. In China the fashion is to reference Roman history rather than Greek drama and place America’s role in the world on the twilight side of the rise and fall of civilizations. 

By perspective, it took several centuries for “Pax Romana” to unravel; several generations for Athenian culture to fall from its fifth century BC pinnacle; and only a couple of  decades for two of the most advanced cultures in history to become captive to fascist and communist dogma. These monumental shifts stand as forewarnings for all peoples in all societies.

At the moment, America leads the world in almost every academic field, but a crisis is looming in the humanities as the term “research” has increasingly come to connote laboratories rather than libraries.

There is every reason to honor the sciences and support investigations into the unknown, be they related to the beginnings of the universe or the extending of human life. Yet, in the end, dark matter and dark energy may be easier to understand in the physical sciences than dark motives are in the social arena. 

Let me conclude by noting that sometimes it is instructive to consider the “what ifs” in the life of a nation.  What if there had been no Vietnam War, no intervention in Iraq, no maintenance of troops in Saudi Arabia in the wake of the first Gulf War, the presence of which was the cause célèbre of the al Qaeda plotters who struck the Pentagon and World Trade Center on September 11, 2001?  Would America today have a stronger economy, more respected stature in the world?  Would there be more security at home and less chance of anti-American hostility around the world, particularly in Islamic countries?

We, of course, have no choice but to plug ahead with policy options constrained by contemporary events.  But of the many lessons emerging from this decade of strife, one surely is that cultural considerations matter, that resources provided humanities research and outreach programs and, most significantly, curricula in colleges and universities, are compelling social investments. 

Which brings me to the final “what if.”  What if society allows humanities studies to fade in significance?  Absent attention to history, literature, philosophy, and related disciplines -- from art and archaeology to jurisprudence, from foreign languages to linguistics, from ethics to comparative religion -- is it not likely that America’s capacity to lead the world and manage our own institutions of governance and commerce will diminish?

We discount the power of the humanities at great cost and greater risk.

Thank you.