What are the humanities? Why do they Matter?

Testimony on behalf of the Federation of State Humanities Councils

Prepared for the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies by Esther Mackintosh, President, Federation of State Humanities Councils, Addressing the National Endowment for the Humanities, May 26, 2017.

Madam Chairwoman and members of the subcommittee, I thank you for this opportunity to submit testimony on behalf of the 56 state and jurisdictional humanities councils. Our request for FY 2018 is $155 million for the National Endowment for the Humanities and $46 million for the Federal/State Partnership, which funds the councils.

The state humanities councils are full partners of the NEH, using the Federal/State Partnership funding to bring public programs to communities throughout the nation. Councils use these funds to leverage additional support from foundations, corporations, private individuals, and state governments. On average, councils leverage $5.00 in local contributions for every dollar of federal funding awarded through their grants. Over the past few years, they have further extended their resources by forming partnerships with more than 9,000 organizations throughout their states. Each year, councils continue to expand their programming to meet growing needs in their states. Councils in many states help to revitalize communities, especially in rural areas, through programs that strengthen local institutions and increase tourism. Teacher institutes conducted by councils increase the quality of humanities education and re-inspire teachers. Family reading programs contribute to school readiness and long-term academic success, particularly for children in low-income families. Council-conducted community conversations help residents understand all sides of divisive issues.

The preamble to the legislation that created the National Endowment for the Humanities and its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, proclaims that “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens.” This lofty assertion calls for citizens to develop the ability to carefully evaluate and shape decisions about issues they confront in their personal and community lives. It requires citizens to understand their own and their nation’s history in order to fully understand the forces that brought us to our present moment. It asks that citizens recognize and accommodate differences in viewpoint and experience as a necessary prelude to shaping strong communities. These are all values advanced through the humanities and the programs supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the state humanities councils.

The first statement of the preamble offers another bold assertion: “The arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States.” This includes people without easy access to major educational and cultural institutions but whose stories are an essential part of our national narrative. It includes people in all income categories, all racial and ethnic groups, and all levels of educational achievement. It includes those who live in towns of 400 people as well as those who live in cities with populations in the millions. The state humanities councils play a key role in fulfilling the promise of the preamble’s statement by extending the reach of the NEH into communities in all corners of every state. Councils ensure that “the humanities belong to all the people” through their programming for such groups as veterans, residents of rural communities, children and families, and teachers, as well as through the many programs designed to strengthen and revitalize communities.

Supporting veterans.

The state humanities councils and the NEH offer programs that not only help returning veterans find their place in their communities, but also help those communities understand the veterans’ experiences. One of the most effective tools for processing the experience of war is reading and sharing stories, which is the basis of several council programs for veterans.

The Alaska Humanities Forum’s “Duty Bound” is a thematic initiative that runs through their programs, activities, and publications, deepening the public’s understanding of the experiences of Alaska’s veterans. In a state that is home to 73,000 veterans, the council uses the humanities to promote conversations that increase understanding of those affiliated with the armed services and to help tell the stories of military personnel and veterans. One of the programs, “Danger Close: Alaska,” brings together veterans and civilian writers to explore themes of war and military experience. These programs gave rise to a publication, “Duty Bound,” which featured pieces by two of the participants in its premiere issue.

Telling the story of rural communities. Rural America represents a vital chapter of our national narrative, but it is a chapter too often overlooked. The state councils are a major force in helping rural communities define their own stories and share them with the rest of the country. Through the Museum on Main Street (MoMS) initiative, designed specifically for rural communities and made possible through a partnership between the councils and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), dozens of rural communities each year are able to host a Smithsonian exhibit, supplemented by an exhibition created by residents of the community, demonstrating how the themes of the exhibit play out at the local level.

This year councils in Alaska, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and 24 other states collaborated with the National Archives to educate thousands of Americans, particularly in rural communities, about the Bill of Rights, in recognition of its 225th anniversary. The councils partnered with more than 1,300 libraries, community centers, schools, and other local institutions, which displayed the kiosk exhibit and supported educational activities.

Promoting family literacy.

Many studies have shown that children exposed to books at an early age have a much higher chance of long-term academic success. Conversely, children who have had little exposure to the culture of reading in their homes can be at a serious educational disadvantage before they even enter school. Many councils help address this potential gap, especially for low-income families, through reading programs in local libraries. These programs have impact in several important ways—by bringing families together in a welcoming setting, helping to strengthen reading skills of parents, familiarizing families with the library, instilling a love of reading, and encouraging intergenerational discussion of ideas

Inspiring leaders of the future.

The future of our nation depends on investment in our children. That means providing the best possible educational resources and opportunities for students in both rural and urban settings. Councils in New Mexico and Maryland serve as the state coordinators for the very successful National History Day program, through which middle and high school students participate in a competition that encourages critical thinking, development of research skills, and a deep understanding of history. A History Day parent in Maryland reported that her daughter’s National History Day experience “encouraged her critical thinking skills and allowed her to fine-tune her writing skills, among many other positives, and as a result, was a contributing factor in her being accepted to Columbia University. I am proud to share that she is now a successful practicing attorney in the health care field.”

The councils’ profound understanding of the needs of their states and their extensive reach into communities large and small ensures that the humanities truly do belong to all the people of the United States. We thank you for understanding how critical that is to our democracy and for providing support for the NEH and the state humanities councils.


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