September 15, 2019
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Our democracy’s health depends on the health of humanities


Maine is well known for producing impressive political leaders — particularly, impressive women political leaders. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith is rightly remembered as the first of these in the contemporary era, anticipating and no doubt inspiring the impressive careers of Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and Chellie Pingree, among others.

Smith grew up in Skowhegan, where her father was the town barber. She attended Lincoln and Garfield elementary schools and Skowhegan High School. I don’t know what subjects Smith learned in school, but considering her distinguished career, it’s likely that they included healthy doses of civics, American political history and the constitutional tradition.

In Maine and across the country, these foundational concerns of primary and secondary education, along with many humanities subjects, are under increasing pressure. We are familiar with the reasons — fewer resources, the pressure of testing regimes and misguided, if understandable, anxiety over career readiness — that continue to envelop many of our policy frameworks for assessing and reforming education.

The results of this situation are not surprising. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in both 1994 and 2010 “a substantial majority” of school-age children in the United States failed to demonstrate “proficiency” in U.S. history. Worse still, nearly 60 percent of high school seniors graduating in those years failed to demonstrate even a basic knowledge of U.S. history.

Student achievement in civics shows a somewhat more encouraging trend, with fourth- and eighth-graders demonstrating improvement between 1998 and 2010. Still, fewer than 20 percent of all students in these grades demonstrated proficient or advanced civics achievement levels. Strikingly lower levels were observed among older students.

It’s hard to imagine a robust democracy without a citizenry that is at least proficient in U.S. history, the basic structure and workings of our political institutions, and the founding principles and values of American democracy. And it’s hard to imagine proficiency in these areas without an abiding commitment to civic education in our schools, colleges and universities.

The democratic significance of the humanities goes well beyond how it cultivates civic and historical sensibilities. Meaningful democratic citizenship requires the ability to think critically and clearly about central issues of shared concern, imagine alternatives to standing arrangements, entertain and advance the common good, and, perhaps most important of all, feel empathy and respect for others. These capacities are in some ways inherent to human nature, but they require the cultivation, reinforcement and testing that lie at the heart of humanistic learning, exchange and understanding.

Democracy flourishes alongside a robust sense of place. This may be especially true in Maine, where sense of place is such an important part of collective identity. With the help of the National Endowment for the Humanities, scholars from the University of Maine recently created a remarkable new asset related to place — the Historical Atlas of Maine. Now a beautiful printed book, the atlas is entering a planning phase to become a national model in an interactive digital format. It will then serve as a resource for schools and individuals across the state and beyond.

Maine also has another wonderful humanities resource in the Maine Humanities Council, one of the most energetic and admired of the national system of state and territorial humanities councils supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Maine Humanities Council is doing exemplary work, providing resources and leadership to the statewide humanities network.

Over the years, Maine also has served as a mecca for creative writers and artists and now boasts an international reputation for its literary and artistic production. Our lives are richer and fuller as a result of such creativity in our backyard. We’ve experienced the power and impact of the cultural economy, which will be an essential part of Maine’s future.

The humanities provide richness, beauty and wisdom in our lives, and they help to transform communities through the power and pleasure of ideas. We need the humanities especially because they provide the intellectual and emotional foundations for democratic life and citizenship. For Maine and the nation, the urgency of the humanities is the urgency of democracy.

William D. Adams chairs the National Endowment for the Humanities, where he launched a new initiative, The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square, as a way to demonstrate the critical role humanities scholarship can play in public life. He was president of Colby College from 2000 until his retirement in 2014. This essay was adapted from his contribution to the special humanities-themed issue of Maine Policy Review (Winter/Spring 2015). The entire issue can be downloaded for free at


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