One measure of the civic health of a community or a state is the vibrancy of its cultural scene. Kentucky just suffered a major blow to its self-image and its citizens’ well-being when the General Assembly, in its dubious collective wisdom, removed funding from the University Press of Kentucky.
The Press is a consortium that involves all of the state’s public institutions of higher learning and many of its private ones. Founded by historian Thomas D. Clark and other forward-thinking Kentuckians 75 years ago, it has published thousands of books and put millions of books into readers’ hands all over the world.
The books cover virtually every domain of inquiry and learning, but also include a line defining what it means to be a Kentuckian — from histories of the state used in public schools (as required by law), biographies of its luminaries, as well as featuring books relating to WWII, film studies, women’s studies and Appalachia.
Not limited to high brows and academic readers, the Press’ books have informed us about our history, our music, our art, our literary traditions, our food and drink, and, yes, our politics.
Until the momentous and dim-sighted vote by the General Assembly, a staff of 15 or 16 professionals ushered into print 60 or so books a year — a measure of efficiency, expertise and sheer dedication unmatched by any organization I know of in either government or industry.
Predictions are that this cut will shut the press down, unless other means are found to sustain it. For 20 or so years, it was my pleasure to represent my public university on the Press board: reading manuscripts, discussing which to publish, seeking ways to improve the climate of scholarship and, more recently, bringing Kentucky’s literary arts to a wider public.
The Press through its publications presents a composite portrait of our state, for better and sometimes worse, in the wider world of letters and learning. Kentuckians justifiably should be proud of its standing among our sister states as a middle-sized, solid and highly respected agency of learning.
We can hold our heads up among larger and better-funded university presses. For every dollar the state invests in it, the Press generates three in sales — an enviable result in any enterprise. Unlike the legislators whose names drop out of history often before their tenure ends, the Press has made a substantial contribution to posterity.
Books play an important role in displaying the value of learning in a state in which learning, no matter how aspiring, has often been laggard and reluctant. That may have ended with the austere budget passed with almost no public notice or discussion by our elected officials, few of whom seem to have reckoned with the damage they are doing to the fragile bonds of culture and learning in our state.
Kentucky is at a crossroads. Its elected representatives must bite the bullet and find new revenue sources or sink further behind our sister states. The challenges are many. The General Assembly must gather the will and wisdom to rewrite a long obsolete state constitution and adapt to a new millennium in which a fuller education, as well as job training, are paramount; one that includes music and the arts, as well as engineering and IT.
With the elimination of state funding for the Press, Kentucky’s legacy as a civilized place to live has taken a big step backward. A substantial blow has been dealt to those in the state who value learning, readers as well as scholars and writers who have so impressively given the state a voice in the marketplace of ideas and learning.
One wonders how Clark would take the demise of his brainchild. When he lobbied the legislature, many of its members had been students in his class on the history of Kentucky. Those days are gone. We now live among a generation of bottom-liners, including leadership that does not seem to value public education, investing in the learning capital of the world, or taking pride in a state that gave us an Abraham Lincoln, a Madeline Breckinridge, a Henry Clay, a Thomas D. Clark.
We need to realign our priorities and seek solutions to the many problems that confront us. We are more than basketball and bourbon.
Richard Taylor, a former Kentucky poet laureate, is the Kenan Visiting Writer at Transylvania University.