By Susan Swetnam
Much has been made recently of the potential negative economic effects that eliminating the Department of Energy could bring to our region. Less obvious but equally devastating would be the grassroots effects of Cruz’s elimination of two other agencies, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
People not familiar with the comprehensive work of the NEH and the NEA may assume that these agencies support only elite programming and grants to eccentric artists, causes that have little to do with the lives of “real people.”
But that’s not true at all. Actually, funds from these agencies enrich the lives of ordinary Idaho citizens every single day. They provide nothing less than ongoing democratic access to books and ideas; to fundamental and cutting-edge thinking in political science and history; to music, art, and theater. They support local museums and historical societies. They enhance the offerings of public schools, offering crucial resources that invite children to broaden their horizons and better their lives. Such programming is hardly “wasteful” or a “frill,” as Cruz seems to believe.
The main mechanism for such local programming occurs through our state arts and humanities councils (the Idaho Commission for the Arts [ICA] and the Idaho Humanities Council [IHC]) which receive a significant amount of NEA and NEH money to fund projects in Idaho. The ICA and IHC board members who make the decisions about what to fund are our neighbors. After discussion in competitive grant rounds, they award federal money (along with donations and other sources of funding) to worthy projects in our state. As just noted, this money goes to schools, and it helps local historical societies and museums enhance their resources and host special programs (including traveling exhibits from no less than the Smithsonian Institute). It goes to local arts councils, who then re-allocate the monies within their own communities. It helps support performing arts groups including the Pocatello’s own Idaho State Civic Symphony. Funds provide speakers for hundreds of local clubs and organizations, allowing members to educate themselves about topics ranging from the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, to conflict resolution, to Idaho literature and history.
Consider just a few specific examples of the hundreds of projects funded annually by IHC and ICA:
1. Each summer, IHC supports a summer institute for Idaho teachers, allowing them to meet with experts, study, and discuss a particular topic together over a period of several days. Themes have included the Supreme Court, Thomas Jefferson, Idaho history, American music, and writers including Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway. Teachers are required not just to learn in the abstract, but to craft concrete plans for incorporating this material into their classrooms.
2. The Teton County Historical Society has recently received an IHC grant to fund digitalization of crumbling historic newspapers (thus insuring their availability for future generations of citizens and researchers).
3. Another recent grant has gone to the Lapwai reservation in northern Idaho. It will provide equipment and training for elementary school students, allowing them to collect oral history and to photograph their families. They will then write history books which will be archived in the community library. This project promises not only a concrete legacy of materials, but also offers training in confidence and specific skills that may well impact the future educational success of the students involved, and offers validation that students’ own history is important and worth preserving.
4. ICA routinely sponsors music education programs for elementary school-aged students — a critical resource now that funding for elementary music education has been curtailed or eliminated in many places. In some communities such programming may be the ONLY exposure in public schools to this core human art that students receive.
5. For decades IHC has funded Let’s Talk About It, a public library reading-discussion series for out-of-school adults across Idaho. Thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of Idahoans have found intellectual stimulation, free adult education, pleasure, and the opportunity to get to know their neighbors better and reach mutual understanding through these sessions. The program reaches into both the tiniest and most rural communities in the state (Preston, Stanley, Grace, Rupert) and into larger cities. Themes (chosen by the individual libraries based on patrons’ interest) include aging, living in the modern rural west, biographies and autobiographies of prominent people, and American classic literature.
Without the trickle-down money that IHC and ICA receive from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, such programs will disappear.
As the above examples demonstrate, this is populist, democratic issue, not a matter of elite frills. Idaho children, especially children in public schools, will lose potential access to enhanced educational opportunities. Ordinary Idaho adults will see long-enjoyed out-of-school opportunities for civic education in history and political science, for stimulating discussion of literature, and for access to the arts go away. Small museums, local theaters and arts groups will lack the opportunity to gain crucial resources to support their programming. Ironically (given Cruz’s friend-of-the-working-person rhetoric) as local cash-strapped communities must bear more of the burden of supporting arts and humanities events and institutions, it seems inevitable that access to such life-enhancing opportunities will in fact decrease for ordinary working people.
All Idahoans deserve such access as part of their fundamental democratic rights. Thus, I urge my Republican friends to think very carefully about their choice when election time comes. If you do decide to support Ted Cruz, please consider registering your strong support for retaining the NEH and NEA, agencies whose monies so deeply touch the lives of ordinary U.S. citizens through state arts and humanities councils.
In any case, do visit the IHC and ICA websites to see what a wealth of riches these agencies bring to Idaho, via a very, very small slice of your tax dollars, indeed.
Dr. Susan H. Swetnam is a professor emerita at Idaho State University.