Op-Ed

Defunding arts, humanities undermines democracy, education, culture

A weaver explained her craft during the 2015 Kentucky Crafted: The Market sponsored by the Kentucky Arts Council.
A weaver explained her craft during the 2015 Kentucky Crafted: The Market sponsored by the Kentucky Arts Council. Herald-Leader file photo

The National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and the Public Broadcasting System have been with us over 50 years, through successive Republican and Democratic administrations.

Each of them, in its way, benefits our country, raising the level of our citizenry in the areas of education, critical understanding and creative expression — things ultimately that measure the worth and contributions of our country to the greater enterprise of world civilization.

Yet, all three of these instruments of democracy are under attack in the name of creating smaller government and realigning our national priorities.

One of the missions of NEH, working through the Kentucky Humanities Council, is to provide public outreach to smaller, often rural communities in Kentucky, bringing them knowledge and information about the state’s history, its literature, its Henry Clays, its Mary Breckinridges, its Isaac Murphys.

Every year, Kentucky Chautauqua provides Kentuckians, young and old, with informative portraits of our citizens and their accomplishments.

Such individuals tell us who we are, who we hope to be. Going beyond what children receive in performance-based schools, they are a source of pride in our collective identity in the settlement of the West, our agricultural heritage and our many contributions to our national identity in the greater community of world culture.

It contributes to building an informed citizenry so essential for the functioning of democracy. It honors clear and productive thought founded on empirical evidence and the exercise of reason.

The NEA, working through the Kentucky Arts Council, with modest funding supports creativity in the visual, theatrical, musical and literary arts. It provides training for the young as well as appreciation for the next generation of Robert Penn Warrens and Barbara Kingsolvers.

It works through the schools and through public forums like Poetry Out Loud, building on Kentucky’s enviable reputation as a state that possesses a rich legacy of creativity, especially its literary contributions.

If it doesn’t ensure everyone will be a Paul Sawyier, a James Still or a Jean Ritchie, it sets a mark to aim for and builds an appreciation for what used to be called “the finer things in life.”

PBS, and its affiliate KET, serve all of these interests — education, creative expression, reasoned discourse on the issues that affect all of us — health care, effective government, individual rights and cultural identity.

The News Hour provides fair-minded and informed coverage of the issues that affect our nation and the world, bringing experts before us who can help us form intelligent opinion, rather than filling our heads with slogans and sound bites.

For those who are frugal minded, please know that the collective budgets of these agencies are miniscule in the larger scheme of government expenditures. In some respects, their disappearance reflects a distrust of ideas and creative expression deeply rooted in our past — the ugly name of anti-intellectualism.

This current, until recently a subcurrent in our country, has become more prevalent in recent years, posing a threat to the health of democracy itself. Without critical thinking, without nurturing creative thinking, we are depriving ourselves and our posterity of much of what makes this country a bulwark of democracy in an increasingly threatened and autocratic world.

What can we do to preserve what has served us so well?

In the long run we can elect individuals who support the arts and learning, who value our past and support institutions that contribute to the education of our children and prepare them for the future.

In the short run, we should raise our voices and resist what threatens us by insisting that these time-proven institutions deserve a future, that shaping critical intelligence and creativity have value in themselves.

Kentucky is not so abundantly blessed with cultural and educational resources that we can afford to discard these partners.

What will Kentucky be without a KET, without recognition of our artists, without an informed populace profiting from how these institutions contribute to the quality of life in Kentucky every day?

Call or write your elected representatives and let them know that cutting support for the arts, ideas and educational television should be dropped from President Donald Trump’s budget proposal. I have.

The alternative is a darker, diminished world, one that will not do us honor. We owe ourselves and our children something better.

Richard Taylor, a former Kentucky poet laureate, is the Kenan Visiting Writer at Transylvania University.

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