The Civic Function of the Arts & Humanities

“The Civic Function of the Arts and Humanities (Roundtable)”
College of Arts and Humanities Institute, IU Bloomington
18 November, 5pm

There was never a golden age of the arts and humanities.

Artists and scholars of the humanities seem to have always struggled for financial support, public prestige, political influence, and that ever-changing, seemingly intangible status . . . relevance.

Except for the fortunate few who found generous patrons, artists have scrapped and struggled.  Except in the halls of church and university — in the courts of kings and academies of nobles — humanists have rarely found accolades or wealth.

Already in the 1st-century CE, the Roman satirist Juvenal complained of the disrespect and poverty of poets, historians, actors, rhetoricians, musicians and teachers:

If you have any idea of waiting for some other fellow
To come to your aid . . . and any such hope keeps you filling
Foolscap, ream upon ream, you would be better off if you ordered
Plenty of kindling wood, and presented your product to Vulcan
Or put the volumes away in a cupboard, a feast for the bookworms.
Break your pen, poor wretch; destroy those epics of battles
Costing you sleepless nights, the loft hymns of the garret,
The hope of the scraggy bust and the stringy garland of ivy.
That is the best you can hope for, no more.  our rich men are misers
Willing to give three cheers, like boys admiring a peacock
(This doesn’t cost them a cent) for the eloquent verse of the poets.
Meanwhile your prime of life, your hardihood, your endurance
Wherewith you might have been a soldier or sailor or farmer
Goes to its ebb, and the spirit lags, and a worn-out old age,
Eloquent, but in rags, hates itself and its art._

Still, many of us who have worked in the United States have been fortunate — to have lived during a brief historical period in which states and patrons have found it necessary and useful to support the arts and humanities.

Some of us have benefitted from the establishment of liberal arts colleges, which followed the model of Harvard College established in 1636.

More of us have benefitted from the creation of state-funded research institutions of higher education which began to emerge in the late nineteenth century.  These universities, modeled on their German equivalents, were funded from public monies with the primary intent to seed technological innovation and drive the economy.  They ballooned in the post WWII era, populated with students supported through the GI bill.  And, the arts and humanities programs grew accordingly.

All of us have benefitted from the allocation of state resources to the arts and humanities, especially after 1965 when the government passed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, which led to the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The spirit that helped drive the public sponsorship of the arts and humanities during the 1960s was, in part, driven by the fear of a creeping scientism and growing technocracy, which threatened to send the world into a global nuclear armageddon.

Glenn Seaborg and John F. Kennedy
Glenn Seaborg and John F. Kennedy

In support of the act, Glenn Seaborg, then Head of the Atomic Energy Commission, famously argued:

We cannot afford to drift physically, morally, or aesthetically in a world in which the current moves so rapidly — perhaps toward an abyss. Science and technology are providing us with the means to travel swiftly. But what course do we take? This is the question that no computer can answer.

The act itself stated that

An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone, but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.

Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.

The world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit.

These sentiments have not disappeared.  One continues to hear similar ideas from scientists, politicians, and business leaders.  However, the context in which they are expressed has changed.

The neoliberal turn of the last decades has emphasized markets and competition.  As education has increasingly become commodified, it has reshaped attitudes about the proper functions of education and the role that public education should play in society.  The value of education is measured by an increasingly narrower set of limits, and other values have been pushed to the side while the importance of economies and markets have inflated.

Concurrently, we have seen the privatization of formerly public responsibilities, and there is increased support to shift the burden of postsecondary education from the community to the individual.  The recent global economic devastation wrought by unmanaged greed and irresponsibility amplified these tendencies, with the sphere of education particularly hard hit.  State appropriations for education were slashed across the country.  For example, the University of California system took a cut of $900 million — 27% of its operating budget — between 2008 and 2012.  Over the same period, Pennsylvania state universities saw an 18% cut.  The immediate response was increased tuition, which has led to criticism over academic inefficiencies.

More than ever, universities must turn to private philanthropy with the effect that non-profits, universities, and even schools within universities are forced to compete with each other for private dollars.

Caught on its heels, academia has come face-to-face with neoliberalism, an ideological force that has radically reshaped other sectors.  The arts and humanities have often fumbled to find a response — speaking platitudes to a new breed of technocrat, one focused on outcomes and impacts framed almost exclusively within a market based ideology.

***

The defense of the arts and humanities is often framed in terms of ethics.  Those working from the perspective of virtue ethics focus on the development of character, while consequentialists emphasize utility and outcomes.  One increasingly voiced response attempts to quantify the value of the arts and humanities in terms that appeal to the market mentality — either through skills based arguments or appeals to economic metrics.

While these arguments are important as part of a broad framework for contextualizing the arts and humanities, they have — and this is particularly the case with framing the debate through quantifiable outcomes — narrowed the discussion.

There are, however, other ways to understand the value of the arts and humanities to both individuals and society.  Take, for example, Cornelia and Jan Flora’s Community Capitals Framework.

The Community Capitals Framework examines a community’s resources in much broader terms than a simple economic framework — though it does use much off the language of economics.  The Community Capitals Framework identifies up to seven intersecting categories that if developed can lead to vibrant communities.

  • Built Capital: housing, transportation, infrastructure, technology
  • Natural Capital: air, soil, water, biodiversity, landscape
  • Human Capital: education, skills, public safety, health
  • Social Capital: trust, reciprocity, networking structures, civic engagement
  • Cultural Capital: cosmopolitanism, traditions, language, diversity
  • Political Capital: public institutions, governance structures, inclusion, power
  • Financial Capital: credit, investment, retention of businesses, income, wealth

It might be useful to see these overlapping arenas as a civic ecology.  Focusing on one or two at the expense of others is likely to have a negative impact on the system as a whole.

Seeing society from this point of view immediately reveals the necessity of a vibrant arts and humanities sector as part and parcel of a healthy community.  After all, there is not a single category in which they aren’t important, either in building capacities or — just as importantly — in a critical role.

In fact, the critical application of the arts and humanities is something that is rarely voiced in its defense.  And, here, I’m not referring to critical analysis as a method, but to criticism more generally — of politics, of economics, of injustice, of ideologies.  Criticism should not be the only function of the arts and humanities, but it should be an important one.  And, it should be a protected one — especially in the educational system (no matter what certain governors might think) — because it has the added value of exposing unquestioned norms and challenging assumptions.  To put it into business jargon, it disrupts groupthink. Protecting this within the educational system has the benefit of modeling this to students, who can learn how to create thoughtful questions and engage with intellectual and ethical ambiguities.

There are some logical implications of this line of thought, especially in the university sector, with which I would briefly like to conclude.

  1. Scholars in the arts and humanities need to create a critical taxonomy of the structures of ideology, authority, and power in which they currently operate.
  2. Scholars in the arts and humanities should examine their role in the community ecology and identify where they could be more deeply embedded.  The arts and humanities sectors would be well served if they could articulate how essential they are to a healthy community.
  3. In order to be embedded more deeply, universities must focus on encouraging the public arts and humanities.  This means that they need a better system of assessing and awarding public scholarship on one hand.  On the other hand, scholars need to become more self consciously aware and self critical of their role in encouraging or stifling public engagement within their institution.
  4. Keeping in mind that communities function as ecologies, arts and humanities scholars will produce valuable contributions if they ally with STEM fields rather than seeing them as competition.  This does not mean subsuming the arts and humanities to scientific interests, but rather looking for common problems which are informed by the diversity of questions, methodologies, theories, forms of knowledge, and truth claims inherent to different disciplines.
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