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The Journal Gazette

Monday, March 20, 2017 10:00 pm

Slashing budget for the humanities a cut of conscience

Larry Rowland

A couple of years ago, Aspire Johnson County launched a series of conversations to bring together hundreds of residents and dozens of businesses to talk about how they can make their county a better place.

Last year, 38 small pop-up exhibits on the Bill of Rights were given – for free – to Indiana schools, libraries and other nonprofits in celebration of its 225th anniversary this year.

And last month, a group of teens clustered around a visitor to Franklin Central High School, jockeying for position and snapping selfies. Their guest? Indiana poet Adrian Matejka.

What links these and similar events this week, next month and the next few years in Indiana? They were made possible by Indiana Humanities – and they probably won’t happen if Congress cuts funding to the National Endowment for the Humanities from the federal budget.

We understand the desire for a budget that balances, and we know tough choices have to be made. We also know that this proposed cut to the NEH (and other cultural organizations) would do more harm than good.

First, let’s look at the "good": Cutting the NEH will save $148 million. By some calculations, this represents .0001 percent of federal spending – roughly equivalent to what the government spends on copy paper and paper clips.

Now the harm: The elimination of the NEH would slash or end programs that serve Indiana communities from Vevay to Valparaiso.

You see, the bulk of the funds received by the NEH is distributed to state-level agencies – including Indiana Humanities – to support programs at the local level. And this is where the story gets really good: On average, for every $1 statewide agencies receive, they leverage $5. Since Indiana Humanities receives slightly more than $800,000 from the NEH each year, that results in an estimated $4 million annual impact for the kind of community-changing programs described above – and an unquantifiable amount of energy seen when we work with local Chambers of Commerce and visitors bureaus, small museums and libraries, and businesses.

We talk a lot about the power of "place" in the growth of thriving economies. We acknowledge that healthy communities require more than houses, commercial districts and infrastructure. And we hold passionately to the democratic principles that define our nation. But, even as we do these things, we neglect some important truths.

As we talk about "place making," we fail to recognize factors that define our sense of place. As we chase "quality of life," we overlook its most tangible components. As we celebrate democracy, we forget the elements that make it possible.

Think about that last point. How could we have democracy without the words that inspire it? How could we build a democracy without understanding the history of nations? How can we shape democracy without respecting the many cultures, faiths, values, fears and experiences that constitute what we call a nation? And how can we sustain democracy without civil discourse?

In other words, how can we have democracy, sense of place or quality of life without the humanities – history, literature, poetry, philosophy and ethics, world languages and cultures, religious studies, archaeology and related disciplines?

The humanities connect us to one another and help us examine our place in the world. They aren’t partisan. They aren’t a luxury. They are essential elements of the infrastructure of what we call community. The humanities are for everyone – and Indiana Humanities ensures that rural, suburban and urban Hoosiers have access to them.

Yes, cutting the NEH would slightly reduce the federal budget. But that savings pales in comparison to what we would lose as a community, state, nation and people.