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Gilbert: Investing In Cultural Wealth

In the face of calls for the abolition of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, one can appreciate just how much is at stake by looking at the life of Robert Frost.

Frost was enormously important in popularizing the arts and humanities in the best sense -- of bringing them to the nation as a whole. Scholars consider him one of America’s greatest poets, and he’s hugely popular. He spoke to hundreds of standing room-only audiences throughout the country, his books were bestsellers, and they won him four Pulitzer Prizes. Millions know his poetry, his face, even his voice. By inviting Frost to read at his inauguration, President Kennedy made it clear that literature and the arts are at the very heart of our national identity, and part of the very best of our nation, something that should be held up, celebrated, and supported.


Referring to the United States, Frost wrote a friend, “We are sure to be great in the world of power and wealth . . . ,” but, he argued, “five thousand years from now [our nation should be remembered] “for more than success in war and trade. … [I]t would be the ultimate shame if we were to pass like Carthage (great in war and trade) and leave no trace in the spirit.”


Real national greatness, Frost implies, lies in part in the arts and humanities, and their role in national life.


Both conservatives and liberals understand that there are things more precious than wealth, and more important than power for power’s sake. It’s in the humanities and arts that one finds and comes to understand better many of those priceless things – like faith, love, honor, courage, dedication, compassion, integrity, and sacrifice.


The arts and humanities are a large part of our nation’s cultural wealth, part of what makes us a great country. Our nation cannot afford to dispense with the humanities and the arts, especially to save a tiny fraction of the federal budget.


Frost said that “[a] poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” The same might be said for the humanities and arts generally. They’re a source of pleasure and wisdom; that’s why we like them and why we need them. And that’s why we need the NEH, NEA, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting, too -- “because,” as the NEH’s founding legislation says, “democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens.”

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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