Born in the 1970s in the African American, Afro-Carribean and Latino communities of the Bronx, Hip Hop culture includes DJing, breakdancing, graffiti writing and rapping. According to Johnny Otis, rhythm and blues musician and teacher, in 1975, Mayor Abe Beame was faced with New York City going bankrupt. His choices were few as neither the federal or state governments would come to his aid. So, to solve his problem he fired over 19,000 city workers, and 15,000 of those workers were teachers responsible for instruction in the humanities: literature, art and music. Suddenly a generation of children had no access to instruments and formal music instruction. But ever resilient, these communities looked inward, drew upon their cultural heritage and created a new musical genre “rap,” one of the pillars of hip hop culture, using all that was available to them: language and percussion. The human spirit creates no matter how stripped bare.
Today our society, and by default, our educational systems are undergoing transformative change. To manage the fiscal crisis, our California state government is making deep cuts to our public universities, and campus and university administrators are now struggling with how to manage these reductions that will no doubt profoundly change our educational system. They will be faced with choices making decisions about what programs, what departments what campus units are sustainable and support the core mission of the university. External funding from public and private sources, though comprised during this economic crisis, continues to be available to support research in medicine, science and engineering, but not so readily available to the arts and humanities, Institute Museum Library Services (IMLS), National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanites (NEH), National Historic Publications Record Commission (NHPRC) and the Mellon Foundation being among the most valiant exceptions. Writing in the New York Times recently, Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University wrote “since the 1970s there has been a steep decline in the percentage of students majoring in the liberal arts and sciences, and an accompanying increase in pre-professional undergraduate degrees. Business is now by far the most popular undergraduate major, with twice as many bachelor’s degrees awarded in this area than in any other field of study. In the era of economic constraint before us, the pressure toward vocational pursuits is likely only to intensify. As a nation, we need to ask more than this from our universities. Higher learning can offer individuals and societies a depth and breadth of vision absent from the inevitably myopic present. Human beings need meaning, understanding and perspective as well as jobs. The question should not be whether we can afford to believe in such purposes in these times, but whether we can afford not to.”
In the September issue of Harpers Magazine, Mark Slouka (Professor of Creative Writing at Columbia University) wrote “the humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their “product” not truth but the reasoned search for truth.” Slouka also wrote “By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and the humanities, we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus is the world made safe for commerce, but not safe.”
During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Progress Administration invested in creating jobs across a wide spectrum including the arts and humanities. These became the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theater Project and the Federal Writer’s Project. There was also the Historic Records Survey which employed archivists to identify, collect and conserve historic records throughout the United States. Rand Jimerson writes in the introduction to his recently published book Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice “Archivists [can] contribute to a richer human experience of understanding and compassion. They can help protect the rights of citizens, and to hold public figures in government and business accountable for their actions. Archivists provide resources for people to examine the past, to understand themselves in relation to others, and to deepen their appreciation of people with different backgrounds and perspectives. This is the essence of our common humanity.” Archives and teaching in the humanities are crucial to the formation of citizens able to participate fully in our democracy.
In February 2009, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ARRA which included stimulus funding making investments in infrastructure such as transportation, public schools, college financial aid, renewable energy programs, healthcare and homeland security. Conspicuously absent is direct funding for teaching and research in the arts and humanities, nor for libraries and archives. In his public high school rhetoric class Marcus Eure provides students with critical thinking skills as they study issues about civic morality. Eure believes “every marriage, every job, every parent-teacher meeting hinges in some way on the ability to understand and empathize with others, to challenge one’s beliefs, to strive for reason and clarity. “ The time is now to invest and provide federal stimulus packages in our arts, humanities, libraries and archives. It is our duty and obligation to the future, to build citizens to grapple with the challenges of today.