Guest columnist Brian Boyles: ‘Democracy demands wisdom’

  • Supporters of New York City’s arts and cultural activities held a rally on the steps of City Hall on April 3, 2017, to denounce cuts to funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities contained in the current proposed Federal Budget platform. Albin Lohr-Jones/Sipa USA/TNS

  • Brian Boyles, executive director of Mass Humanities Zack Smith—

Published: 1/2/2019 8:12:37 AM

We don’t typically think of federal legislation as poetic. Whatever your views on, say, the Affordable Care Act, you probably don’t call on its inspirational passages when arguing its merits. The language in a bill is usually tossed aside as “how the sausage gets made.” 

Yet we’d do well to give certain legislation a second read. The National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 is a document of stirring eloquence that feels more relevant and more urgent by the year. Signed into law by President Johnson, the act established the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The authors declared that “the arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States.” Federal support for humanities scholarship and the arts was necessary “to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.” 

Your favorite teacher could hardly have made a better case for studying history, but the bill’s authors went a step further; the very fate of the republic depended on it. “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens.” Only through access to the arts and humanities could Americans remain “masters of the technology and not its unthinking servants.” The establishment of the NEA and NEH reflected “the high place accorded by the American people to the nation’s rich cultural heritage and to the fostering of mutual respect for the diverse beliefs and values of all persons and groups.” 

Given the discord of today’s body politic, it’s stunning to read these words from the federal government. They’re an eloquent affirmation of the fact that a democracy is only as strong as the people who comprise it. The humanities, with their focus on understanding what it means to be human, give us the empathy and perspective we need to make sound decisions. 

To provide access to the humanities at the local level, the NEH established state affiliates, among them Mass Humanities. Since 1974, Mass Humanities has served the Commonwealth with excellence. Supported by public funding from NEH and Mass Cultural Council, as well as the generosity of private citizens, Mass Humanities has awarded grants to more than 2,500 organizations in the last 45 years, distributing more than $13 million to communities across Massachusetts. 

Every day, my staff and I witness the ways the humanities strengthen our democracy through the work of libraries and museums, documentary filmmakers and photographers, historic sites and after-school programs. The humanities provide the pillars of the civic life that make Massachusetts the envy of the nation. They force us to ask difficult questions, acknowledge our differences and identify common ground.

The spirit of the NEH’s founding legislation is alive and well in the latest round of Mass Humanities grants. Funded projects include an educational website on Revolutionary-era printer Isaiah Thomas, an oral history of African-American life in Holyoke, a documentary about the METCO program, and an exploration of technology’s impact on the diverse New Bedford fishing communities. Artists in Turners Falls, LGBTQ+ residents of Worcester and teachers in Boston are all part of new projects aimed at including more voices in the unfolding story of Massachusetts and its people. 

As a tumultuous year comes to a close, we count ourselves fortunate to live in a state where the richness of the humanities belongs to all of us. Democracy demands wisdom, and that wisdom reaches people in every corner of Massachusetts through the humanities. 

Brian Boyles is the executive director of Mass Humanities, based in Northampton.

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