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In 1790, in the first ever State of the Union address, George Washington told Congress he understood that federal support of agriculture and commercial ventures across the nation needed no special defense. He wanted to insist, however, that the government give equally concrete encouragement to new inventions and “the promotion of science and literature.” Why? Knowledge is “the surest basis of public happiness” everywhere. But in a representative democracy, where the laws and policies of the government are molded directly by “the sense of the community,” knowledge is essential.
When Washington described laws as the product of the sense of the community, he was choosing his words carefully. In the context of eighteenth-century science and philosophy, “sense” meant not only the facts citizens collectively hold to be true, but also their convictions, opinions, feelings, and self-understanding.
Fast-forward to a powerful documentary released just a few weeks ago, I Am Not Your Negro, in which director Raoul Peck brings alive the words of the brilliant James Baldwin, who died in 1987 after decades of writing about American life and the place of black Americans in it. The question white America has to ask itself, Baldwin told one interviewer, is why it invested itself so deeply in the notion of racial categories in the first place. White Americans, Baldwin says, have got to find out why they invented them, and why they need them — “and the future of the country depends on that.”
Baldwin is challenging Americans, to use Washington’s phrase, to figure out “the sense of the community” about race and racism in our country. What knowledge do we need to do this? To make a sensible start on race — and note we can say the same about class, religion, ideology, and anything else that divides the national community — we need some political and social and economic history, psychology, economics, political theory, and philosophy, as well as literature, art history, music, and cinema. Next, since we seek the sense of the whole community, we need to talk with people who disagree with us; even in the course of disagreement we can find common ground, most likely through the discovery of shared histories or hopes, tastes or emotional commitments, on which we can move forward together.
In short, we need the knowledge provided by the arts and humanities. So we can see the president’s new “skinny” budget, which proposes to end two federal agencies, the National Endowments for the Arts (NEA) and for the Humanities (NEH), as it truly is: a blow against our capacity to gain the sense of our community and from there the insight to tackle, together, the wicked problems besetting us.
The question is bigger than whether we want the federal government to support particular programs (though a preliminary study by the Digital Fellows at the CUNY Graduate Center vividly displays the benefits of NEH funding enjoyed across the country, including, ironically, in “red” states). It’s about what kind of political culture we Americans want — whether we are willing to place a high enough value on knowledge and the skills of thinking together that Washington and Baldwin believed to be crucial to democracy.
To hear a poetry reading in a public library, to learn about the past at a local museum, or to attend a Greek play about war mounted by veterans: These aren’t the pretty extras of life in a modern democracy but the engine of inspiration and imagination that keeps a robust democracy going. We’ve had this argument for generations. W.E.B. Du Bois argued long and hard against the notion that the permanent uplifting of black men in America rested in material advancement alone. The vocational school that guarantees the skills to earn a living cannot be our final and sufficient answer, he insisted, because life is “more than meat.” The kind of education that encourages aspiration and complex thinking is not a privilege of the well-off, but a necessity for citizens engaged in democratic decision-making.
Especially in these emotionally loaded days, citizens also need practice in dialogue about thorny questions, so that we can handle differences of perspective, emotion, and opinion as we think and (inevitably) disagree. Baldwin describes how a teacher named Orilla Miller “gave me books, and talked to me about books, and about the world.” It is because of her, Baldwin observes, that he “never really managed to hate white people,” despite the rage he felt at the prejudice and hatred he sensed all around him.
Learning to think critically about how words and images work, and how they can be manipulated for good or evil, pleasure or prejudice: This is what the NEH and the NEA do. Yes, these are small programs, and yes, private sources of funding for the arts and humanities exist. But if we believe along with Washington that knowledge is the surest basis of public happiness, then we should celebrate our public investment in knowledge.
Joy Connolly is provost and professor of classics, the Graduate Center, CUNY.