How the Humanities Power Imagination and Build Community
by William Marcus, Board Chair 2011-12, Humanities Montana
There is much discussion these days about whether we as a people can afford some of the so-called "luxuries" that government has supported over the past 40 years—among them the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts and public broadcasting. Here's what I would tell a fellow Montanan about why the humanities are important to our state and its citizens.
We all know that Montana feeds the nation. We have an abundance of rich agricultural land. Our fields of wheat, barley, oats, corn, lentils, sugar beets and bitterroots—our cattle, buffalo, sheep, chickens, and yes, even those Hutterite turkeys—they've all produced enormous wealth and great pride in our farmers and ranchers as stewards of the land, and our state as a bread basket to the world.
Humanities Montana feeds the mind. Our fields—of history, philosophy, languages, linguistics, literature, ethics—and our husbandry of our diverse heritage and traditions, produce citizens who can reason, set priorities, organize ideas and quickly grasp what is essential. We cherish the human mind as a wonderful, endlessly imaginative thing.
Montana powers the nation. We open the earth and extract coal, petroleum, copper and palladium. We mine molybdenum which, when mixed with iron, makes hard, sharp cutting tools. We hoist giant blades into the sky to harvest the wind and let the surging power of tumbling water spin turbine blades that make our nation's nights bright and our country's industry hum.
Humanities Montana powers the imagination. We open and explore the experience of being human. We analyze it, interpret it and refine it. We add alloys of theory and critique to make the outcomes photo: William Marcus seated at radio microphonestronger, the solutions more finely honed. The core we drill into contains questions of value and justification, meaning and interpretation. The imagination surges with this intellectual power—propelling our ability to synthesize learning and make relevant connections.
Montana builds the nation. Loggers and mill workers harvest the renewable resources found in our vast tracks of timber and have, for generations, built homes, businesses and warehouses; we've lined countless miles of underground mines with strong braces of sturdy pine. Trestles, teepees, churches and schools have been hewn from the forests of our western slopes. These structures shelter our families, store our commodities and make our productivity and community possible.
Humanities Montana also builds that community—with a strong architecture of interwoven disciplines—among them: tolerance, mutual understanding, and respect for each other. We establish a bulwark of civic engagement that shelters a free and open examination of what we can do together to solve our problems and resolve our conflicts. We make a healthy, strong community possible.
Montana feeds the nation, Montana powers the nation and Montana builds the nation. Humanities Montana feeds the mind, powers the imagination and builds community.
And it is a community—with common interests. There are logger writers, rancher poets, oilman historians, farmer philosophers, elders who fly-fish and professors who hunt.
What's the value of the humanities? I believe they are as precious as a Yogo sapphire set in a band of pure Montana gold. They are equal to the bounty of the land and the power of our rivers, air and minerals. They connect us, protect us, and speak to us of beauty and history and the wonder of being human. Montana, our home, is a naturally beautiful, welcoming place—it's somehow fitting that the phrase Big Sky Country was inspired by a book.
(Some of the phrases above are borrowed from National Endowment for the Humanities sources.)