The Trump administration has made it clear that it plans to eliminate federal funding for both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Together these agencies constitute less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the annual federal budget, but they support a variety of widely used programs across the country, particularly in middle America.
The NEA, for example, subsidizes Louisville’s Festival of American Music and, in 2016 alone, awarded Ohio arts programs, such as Cincinnati’s popular Playhouse in the Park, a total of $682,000. The NEH not only funds state programs in fields like history and civics, it also supports exhibits for all ages in our local museums, websites that promote Ohio heritage tourism, and educator workshops that benefit Ohio’s students.
The administration would have Americans believe our society cannot afford such luxuries. With so many Americans facing financial insecurity, is it right that taxpayer dollars should be covering a music festival? Or paying for a history teachers’ workshop on recent archaeological discoveries? Why should we fund a public university professor’s trip to a foreign library to read old documents in a dead language? And why do kids need live theater when there is plenty to watch on YouTube?
In fact, there is ample evidence that studying things like music, foreign languages, history and art produce a host of practical outcomes that drive successful societies. Think foreign students outperform American students in math and science just because their countries’ STEM programs are better? Think again. Countries successful in STEM fields take secondary language and music instruction very seriously with clear cognitive payoffs in their students’ academic performance.
Moreover, societies that study history don’t just know about the past; they develop the intellectual flexibility, expanded perspective, and data-collection skills that enable them to solve today’s complex problems. Numerous recent studies have found that fostering such skills in our children increases their ingenuity, self-sufficiency, and attention span, all of which ultimately strengthens our economy.
But even setting aside such utilitarian justifications for supporting the arts and humanities, these enterprises are essential to human fulfillment. People can and do live lives devoid of art, music, theater, and a sense of history or purpose. But they do not do so by choice. Certainly, these are not the lives that rich people choose for themselves.
If this decision is really about money, then let’s be honest about where we stand: the United States is not a poor country and there is no shortage of resources. But automation, digitization, and some good old-fashioned cronyism mean that an ever-smaller number of people capture and control our nation’s wealth. We have become a country of tremendous income inequality with 1 percent of the population possessing roughly 30 percent of the wealth. This 1 percent can already afford all the nice artwork, music, theater, books and exhibits that money can buy. Indeed, they buy plenty of it for themselves and their kids.
Instead of cutting arts and humanities programs, why not invest in America’s creative and intellectual potential? Why not assist our educators in learning more about their world and ways to improve it so that they might teach our children how to do the same? Why not subsidize arts programming for all Americans so that the next sculptor or novelist or cello virtuoso might be a working-class kid from Ohio? And why not do it by demanding that the Trump administration not only protect but expand the NEH and the NEA?
Valerie Stoker, Ph.D., teaches religion and directs the Master of Humanities Program at Wright State University.