Humanities Endangered -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

On the budget chopping block are the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. They make up a minuscule part of the budget, but seem easy pickings for budget cutters. After all, what "results" can be measured from the humanities? In fact, what are the humanities? Don't we need to invest in STEM, which leads to good jobs? Let me question differently: does history matter? Does literature matter? These are the humanities. The funds from this endowment doesn't just fund projects by elitist academics. It funds programs at the local historical society that help students understand their community better. Martin Marty is one who understands this question better than most, and I appreciate his word for the week, and share it with you, that you might take up the cause. That is, if you think that telling our stories is just as important as building a few bombs!

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Editor's note: Sightings will be off this Thursday for the University's spring interim. See you next week!
Humanities Endangered
By MARTIN E. MARTY   March 20, 2017
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with historian and filmmaker Ken Burns, whose 10-part, 18-hour documentary series The Vietnam Warwhich will air on PBS in Septemberwas funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities | Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State
In and after the present chaos, should our republic survive as a republic, wounded but responsible citizens will need to assess what they lost and what they might recover. So many humane causes will beckon for attention. The arts and humanities may have a lower priority when it comes to the Union’s constitutional commitment to promoting the general welfare—relative to higher priorities like care for the aged, the ill, the poor, the displaced—but they deserve a glance in this time of crisis. In the proposed national budget they would be demolished. Sightings, however, has stayed alert to them. We know more about them and their place than we do about many other causes.

While “National Endowments” for the support of these might disappear, one hopes that concern for them now will help set priorities for “then.” Endowment funds are peanuts compared to budget line items like bombers, etc., but they could mean all the difference between a robust and creative cultural and intellectual scene and the alternative. It is time, if not to shout out or speak up, then at least to whisper.

My own whisper today will not be my own words, but a quotation of others. We may know what the “arts” are, but it is more difficult to define the humanities. Let me quote from the first page of The Humanities in American Life, an aging 1980 (AD or CE, that is) report from the Commission on the Humanities, of which I was 1/32nd part, though I was not responsible for writing what follows. Knowing how hard it is to define the humanities, the Commission began by pointing them out. Thus I quote:

…the humanities mirror our own image and our image of the world. Through the humanities we reflect on the fundamental question: what does it mean to be human? The humanities offer clues but never a complete answer. They reveal how people have tried to make moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of a world in which irrationality, despair, loneliness, and death are as conspicuous as birth, friendship, hope, and reason. We learn how individuals or societies define the moral life and try to attain it, attempt to reconcile freedom and the responsibilities of citizenship, and express themselves artistically. The humanities do not necessarily mean humaneness, nor do they always inspire the individual with what Cicero called “incentives to noble action.” But by awakening a sense of what it might be like to be someone else or to live in another time or culture, they tell us about ourselves, stretch our imagination, and enrich our experience. They increase our distinctively human potential.

Not all people who are devoted to the humanities and/or live off their yield are veteran activists. But they might relearn some “incentives to noble action,” and strive to quicken those who are in power while the current budget and tax proposals are still only that—proposals. Such citizens can revisit in the humanities what the Commission noted are not always conspicuous, but nonetheless present: “hope and reason.”


- Commission on the Humanities. The Humanities in American Life: Report of the Commission on the Humanities. University of California Press, 1980.

- LaFraniere, Sharon, and Alan Rappeport. “Popular Domestic Programs Face Ax Under First Trump Budget.” The New York Times. February 17, 2017.

- “White House Proposes Eliminating Arts, Humanities Funding.” Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut. March 17, 2017.
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at
Sightings is edited by Brett Colasacco, a PhD candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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