Opinion: Students lose in Trump’s proposed cuts to arts, humanities

Are the arts a luxury that ought to be privately funded or a necessity that the government ought to support, especially for students?
(Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

Eric L. Motley is an executive vice president at the Aspen Institute. He served as a senior White House advisor to President George W. Bush, and is the author of the forthcoming book “Madison Park: A Place of Hope,” to be published in November by Zondervan/HarperCollins.

By Eric L. Motley

I grew up in a rural Alabama community founded by freed slaves. There was no library, museum, or theater to provide youngsters early access to the arts and humanities. However, neighbors in my hometown of Madison Park donated books to me; one even drove me into nearby downtown Montgomery to visit the public library. Later, school field trips afforded me the chance to attend performances, including “Peter and the Wolf,” after which the conductor introduced my classmates and me to orchestra instruments by illustrating how they had been used for certain dramatic effects.

Another field trip exposed me to great works at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, and I still remember my awestruck reaction upon first seeing the majestic brush strokes in John Singer Sargent’s painting of a beautiful woman in a bluish-white dress. Her intense stare seemed, through my young eyes, to be aimed directly at me. My grandmother cleaned house for a woman who gave me a crate of classical albums, including some that featured opera stars Maria Callas and Jessye Norman. I had never heard such beautiful sounds before, and I quickly became fascinated with the expressiveness of the human voice.

Eric Motley

Without such small exposures to the arts, I am certain that I would have been far less successful, if at all, in learning to relate to those outside the narrowly circumscribed world of Madison Park. These experiences helped prepare me for college, graduate school abroad, and finally public service first in government and now at a think tank. Aesthetic sense informs a wider sensibility, sharpening our awareness of everything in the world around us, from the way that city streets shape neighborhood culture, to the irreplaceable value of our environmental inheritance, to the values handed down to us through our families and faiths.

Not all young people, even from more fashionable surroundings than Madison Park, enjoy the kind of aesthetic delights that I experienced, which was thanks to the concerted efforts of family, friends, teachers, and mentors. Access to the arts and humanities now faces even greater threats in light of the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Institute for Museum and Library Services, and National Endowment for the Humanities – the four entities which comprise the federal government’s cultural agencies.

In addition to the early exposure to the arts, they also fund community orchestras, poetry competitions, emerging artists, literacy, and plain old local radio. Meanwhile, many public school systems are slashing funding for what are considered non-essential “frills” like music and art departments.

The villain in all of this is not the Trump administration, but a much more broadly shared over-reliance on metrics, or that which can be quantitatively measured (think quarterly earnings), that trims away anything unquantifiable as so much inefficiency. What this approach fails to appreciate is the vital way in which arts education underwrites the ends toward which all of our skill and understanding are directed.

The humanities are not a luxury to be rationed out, but the whole culmination and compass for our toil. Arts and literature do teach us highly practical skills, such as effective expression and social intelligence, but above all they teach us about meaning. They teach us to value ourselves and live together with integrity, and indeed to live for something more than our finite spans. In a time of accelerating cultural change and economic uncertainty, the ability to find purpose and dignity is an essential life skill and tool of citizenship.

While the government alone is not responsible for stewardship of our shared culture or ensuring that all have at least some access to it, we should demand that our leaders rethink and, let us hope, revise, their plans to abolish entire agencies that enrich the cultural tapestry of our nation.

 

Reader Comments 0

14 comments
ScienceTeacher671
ScienceTeacher671

According to a summary by PAGE, the budget also cuts Federal Impact Aid funding. I suspect this will be a much larger issue in Georgia.

alt.AJC
alt.AJC

President Trump, of course, ISN'T cutting funding to the arts or humanities. 

What his administration has done is recognize that the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have been politicized into vehicles for promoting the liberal political agenda.

As have so many other Washington institutions.

cmcwilli
cmcwilli

@alt.AJC Please provide evidence for your thesis. If you actually listened to/watched Public Broadcasting you would know that they are one of the few radio/tv outlets that simply report the news and then let viewers make up their own minds. I don't see how you can get more "fair and balanced" than that. How does ballet, music, public art, and art education promote the "liberal agenda?"  If the media and the NEA have been promoting the "liberal agenda" for so long, I would think our current lospsided government proves the program to be a miserable failure in that regard.

bu22
bu22

@cmcwilli @alt.AJC PBS has drifted left on their limited news offerings, especially since Lehrer retired.  NPR is subsidized radio for wealthy liberal Democrats.  None of these cuts stop states and localities from doing these things if they believe them a valuable use of resources.

bu22
bu22

@cmcwilli @alt.AJC But I really doubt Congress will have the courage to kill some of these sacred cows.

Angie Baucom Powell
Angie Baucom Powell

I'm aware of grants...Grants are most often awarded to a few groups...not everyone gets funds when they apply. Art classes at our primary & elementary schools have long been gone all before President Trump because of budget cuts.

Pat Norton Homer
Pat Norton Homer

And, if teachers are now going to be grant writers, when are they going to do it?

Angie Baucom Powell
Angie Baucom Powell

Pat Norton Homer teachers are already involved in writing grants. Our system has received grants, and along with school system administration, teachers are on those committees to apply for the grants...as they should be. I am very thankful for the numerous grant opportunities out there and for the grants our system has received over the years. Grants are a great thing! I hope private companies will step up & offer more instead of using government funding for some of these. With budget reductions over the last decade (even further back), applying for grants has become a very important strategy for schools to receive needed funds for educating students.

Shira Newman
Shira Newman

No one is stopping anyone from raising the money for causes they think are important. The federal govt has no business doing 50 or.80 percent of what it does. So stopping the laundering of money thru the federal govt is a good thing.

Angie Baucom Powell
Angie Baucom Powell

Wish I even knew what "arts" you're talking about. For certain that none of that money has ever made it to the rural county of GA I live in and am surrounded by. ?? Just wondering where every $$ went for that program? Who are we to say it didn't need to be cut? And? What do you propose be done about the national debt? Can we really afford these programs? Certainly cutting a lot of the things he is isn't popular, but honestly--the debt has to be controlled somehow. I just don't get it when we argue about anything & everything with a debt that's in the trillions? It isn't going to somehow without cuts go away.

cmcwilli
cmcwilli

Angie - if you want to know where money goes, then look it up! I give you one example below, supporting communities with <100K people -  that took me 5 minutes to find. And if you would bother to research at all, you would find that the VAST majority of our budget goes to Defense, Medicare and Medicaid. The arts are a tiny drop in the bucket. They have to use their funds wisely because they get so little - unlike the DOD which literally cannot find billions of dollars or show how it was spent or what it accomplished. https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/Our_Town_2015_projects_by_state.pdf

Chanda RobertsWhite
Chanda RobertsWhite

And we just gave him one more person to rubber stamp and approve his actions. NOT one parent in district 6 has a leg to stand on as these cuts come. NOT one should express a comment or concern about what is about to occur to the arts. unless of course, you can show that you vote. Otherwise, yeah, what I said.