Determining the True Cost of the Humanities

By Shannon Smith

A conversation is going on in Wyoming and all around our country, and it is about the very soul of our nation. On March 16, the Trump administration released its first federal budget plan which called for the elimination of 62 agencies and programs, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This possibility had been rumored for some time, but most of us thought that the value of these cultural organizations, which is so widely recognized around the country, would temper the new administration’s inclinations. We were wrong.

The Trump “Skinny Budget” eliminates these programs and proposes steep cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department. Indeed, virtually every agency will see some cut, with only Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs seeing increases. To increase the defense budget by $54 billion—a sum that is itself larger than that which all but two countries on the planet spend on their entire military budget—programs and services of all types that touch nearly all of our citizens will be slashed or eliminated.

The breadth and depth of the cuts go far beyond our beloved arts and cultural organizations; science and health research, social services, community development, education, housing, and transportation are all hit hard. Our national debt, and how our budgets and taxes impact it, is a very complex issue that should concern us all, but we should not fall for simple narratives designed to scare us into completely reshaping our nation’s core character.

As you know, as our state’s humanities council we are Wyoming’s affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and about 70% of our revenue comes from the NEH. If they go under, so do we. To convince you why that is a terrible idea and a major loss for Wyoming, I could talk about the impact we make, elaborating upon the depth and breadth of our own humanities programs throughout the state—serving up several hundred talks, lectures, community conversations, exhibits, documentary films, and reading groups every year. But I don’t think that case needs to be made. If you are reading this, you are likely already a believer in our work.

I could also expound upon the economic lunacy of the proposed cut to the NEH, that the minuscule amount in relation to the entire federal budget makes a mighty impact at the local level: for every dollar in federal funding we receive in Wyoming, we match it four- or five-fold in private donations and in-kind contributions from our many, many partners around the state. Plus, every dollar we invest in a program supports economic development by attracting visitors or improving the quality of life in Wyoming. But these economic cases speak to only a part of the larger question that we need to address:

What does the United States of America truly stand for—who are we as a nation and as a people? 

Make no mistake about it, how our Congress addresses the president’s proposed budget will be the first step in defining the values and national character of the United States going forward. It’s hard for me to say that taxpayers should support the NEH (thus sparing my job and that of six other Wyomingites who work here) over, say, research into coastal and marine management or funding Amtrak or before- and after-school and summer programs for kids in need or any of the 60-some-odd other programs facing elimination including many that will eliminate or dramatically stifle scientific research. But it sure feels like the nation has an urgent need for public humanities programs that can help citizens take a closer look at these important issues in a non-partisan way and guided by experts who have devoted their lives to researching and understanding the complexities of modern life.

Wyoming Humanities invests in the people who live in communities of all sizes, stimulating local economies through partnerships with libraries, schools, veterans’ hospitals, nonprofit arts and cultural organizations, colleges and universities, museums and more. Like our sister humanities councils around the United States, we help our fellow citizens achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future—knowledge that is needed now more than ever.

Opening with “The arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States,” the founding legislation of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 further declares that “The encouragement and support of national progress and scholarship in the humanities and the arts, while primarily a matter for private and local initiative, are also appropriate matters of concern to the Federal Government.” I ask you to consider Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent tweet that the combined Federal budgets of the NEA and NEH equals four hours and 23 minutes of spending on the US Military and then contemplate this: what has changed in our nation’s value system between 1965 and today?

U.S. citizens will have a lot to consider over the next few months as Congress decides how much or little of the Trump blueprint will inform the 2018 budget. I don’t know if we’ll be asked to prioritize or pick from an a la carte menu of what we are willing and unwilling to support, or if we’ll be asked to get down to the very meat of issue: what is it that makes us a nation and how much are we willing to pay to maintain the social contract that binds us together? I, for one, agree with our founding legislation, the humanities and arts (and sciences and technologies!) are indeed appropriate matters of concern for the Federal Government.

To find out more about the Wyoming Humanities Council, go to www.thinkwy.org.