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Stop dissing the humanities

Op-Ed

Obama loves 'Moby-Dick.' Eric Garcetti reads Borges. Wendy Greuel's husband is a literary agent. But what have they done for the liberal arts lately?

April 19, 2013|By David Kipen
  • "Money spent on the liberal arts does more than feed and clothe the creative class. It creates a heritage of intellectual property that can yield economic and social benefit for lifetimes," writes David Kipen.
"Money spent on the liberal arts does more than feed and clothe the… (Jon Krause / Tribune Media…)

If any line item in the state or federal budgets cries out for more resources, or even just a little more respect, it's the arts and humanities. Never mind that many writers, artists and scholars have the fresh ideas that our times so desperately need. When politicians and columnists call for increased spending on STEM projects — that's science, technology, engineering and mathematics — don't they know they're alienating at least half the country?

Let's reckon with the extent of the neglect. President Obama's proposed budget includes a multibillion-dollar blank check for increased research to map the human brain, in contrast to a roughly 5% uptick in combined arts and humanities funding — partly erased by the sequester, of course. Anyone mapping Obama's brain would have to wonder why the left side of it has atrophied so thoroughly while the right looks so plump and healthy and green.

Moreover, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts has been a lame duck for more than five months. In California, the state librarianship has been vacant even longer. And does anyone know if Greucetti even have a position on the liberal arts in L.A. schools?

Somewhere right now in Los Angeles, in an underfunded middle school that reassigned its school newspaper advisor and laid off its librarian, is the eighth-grader who could do for Los Angeles in the 21st century what Raymond Chandler did for it in the 20th. How long should Angelenos have to wait before we finally get a creative-writing magnet school for that kid?

This weekend, more than 100,000 readers will head to the USC campus from all over the basin for the Los Angeles Times Book Festival. Infants in strollers at the first book festival 18 years ago at UCLA are in college now. (Would it be complete coincidence if one or two kids whose parents took them elsewhere that day are not?) And on Sunday, up to 150,000 souls will take to the streets as part of CicLAvia, this time from downtown all the way to the beach.

Not counting overlap, that's 300,000 or so people who realize that English majors and urban planners enrich our lives in ways that higher math alone — useful though it is for bamboozling most of us, and for keeping planes from falling down — can't.

At one level, all this bellyaching is just hurt feelings. My president likes scientists better than me. Boo hoo. Then again, politics without creativity won't get anyone very far. Shakespeare gave Lincoln the words to save the Union. Harriet Beecher Stowe lit the torch that Lincoln took up. Steinbeck moved Eleanor Roosevelt to help alleviate human suffering. Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize — for literature.

Even today, Obama loves "Moby-Dick." Eric Garcetti reads Borges. Wendy Greuel's husband is a literary agent. How desperately we bookish folk cling to these tidbits from the top. But what have they done for us lately? Politicians champion incentives for domestic manufacturing and housing starts to create jobs and stimulate the economy. Wouldn't re-employed teachers and writers buy durable goods too?

The last time Congress directed much money toward the writer's trade came with the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935. This law didn't just build many of the bridges we cross today and pave many of the highways we drive. Part of it underwrote the Federal Writers Project, which jump-started the careers of Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel and Saul Bellow — and that was just the Chicago office!

Money spent on the liberal arts does more than feed and clothe the creative class. It creates a heritage of intellectual property that can yield economic and social benefit for lifetimes.

Also, just incidentally, practitioners of the humanities tend to vote. Unfortunately for many public officials, they even keep abreast of the news.

It wouldn't take much more than a kind word and the occasional modest appropriation to make us swoon, though. That's one thing about the beleaguered humanities. We lick pretty much any hand that deigns to slip us table scraps, at least for now. And there's yet another reason to stay on our good side: Legacy-minded politicians only make history; we write the stuff.

But partisans of the liberal arts can do more just whine and wheedle. For one thing, we can call our state representatives — or Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles), the Assembly's appropriations chair — and urge support for AB 580, which would lift our state arts funding from 49th in the country to 12th. It's even a local call.

And the next time a politician goes bloviating on about STEM funding (as some liberal arts major of a speechwriter surely dubbed it), spare a kind thought for BRANCH: books, readers, artists, newspapers, critics and, yes, the humanities.

David Kipen is the former director of literature for the NEA and the founder of Libros Schmibros, a nonprofit lending library in Boyle Heights. Reissued WPA guides to California and San Diego with his introductions will be published this month. kipend@gmail.com

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