Saturday, November 7, 2009

Civility Crisis

James Leach, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, believes that America is facing a "civility crisis." The former Republican congressman from Iowa supports greater funding of the humanities as a way to move the nation beyond bitter partisan rancor. Perhaps if people knew their history better, the Omaha World Herald reports, they would not be so quick to compare modern legislators to Stalin or Hitler. Humanities education, Leach says, is an "investment in democracy."

Some participants in last summer's health care town meetings talked of “secession,” and used words like “fascist” to describe their opponents.

“We fought a Civil War that cost 600,000 lives over the issue of secession, and fought a world war to defeat fascism,” Leach said. “History teaches us that those issues are settled.”

Leach also cited history in his call for increased financial support for the NEH.

He noted that during the country's darkest strategic hour during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln invested in education, signing the land-grant colleges act.

And during the nation's darkest economic crisis of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt spent money on the arts and humanities through various public works projects.

“That was all an investment in democracy,” Leach said.

The NEH's current budget, appropriated by Congress, is $155 million, up from $110 million a decade ago. Still, Leach noted that when adjusted for inflation, NEH funding is down a third from 1979.

Leach would like to see more support for the humanities to promote, among other things, more study of comparative religions, cultures and histories.

“We live in perilous times,” Leach said. “But nothing can be more costly than shortchanging the humanities.”

So let us begin anew -- remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.-John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address