The humanities aren’t just practical. They are critical to our democracy.

Illustration by Abayomi Louard-Moore

Illustration by Abayomi Louard-Moore

The Open Mind

by Laurie Zierer

Last spring, a group of teenagers gathered regularly at the Philadelphia City Institute branch of the Free Library. They came from different neighborhoods and attended schools that spanned the local spectrum, from traditional public schools and magnets to charters, private schools and home-school settings. Nonetheless, the group connected at an intense level through Teen Reading Lounge, a statewide after-school program that librarians have described as “a book club on steroids.”

During a particularly lively session in March, the teens talked about Renée Watson’s novel “This Side of Home,” which follows two young sisters as they watch their urban neighborhood shift from rough-and-tumble to up-and-coming. Some of the teens had directly experienced this type of transition, and all had seen it happen in the neighborhoods of friends or family.

To nudge the conversation further that day, the group invited a Philadelphia city planner to join them. The planner split the group into smaller teams charged with allocating funds to municipal services such as energy and water supply, affordable subsidized housing and parks and recreation centers. As each team struggled to disseminate funds equally among services, the teens began to see the challenges city planners face. And, near the end of the activity, when it was revealed that some teams had more money in their budgets than others, the conversation moved to inequities in community funding and the importance of civic participation.

The discussion around “This Side of Home”—and related activities—may not resonate in less urban parts of Pennsylvania, but it was meaningful for Philadelphia teens who are experiencing enormous changes in their city.

“We have so many quiet readers who come into the library,” said the librarian leading the session, “but we don’t always get the opportunity to engage with them on such a deep level.”

That deep engagement is a key goal of Teen Reading Lounge, which encourages participants to help choose books and design creative projects that bring them to life. My staff at the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) created Teen Reading Lounge in 2010 in response to a statewide survey that identified a gap in quality after-school services for this age group.

We at PHC provide the program framework, funding and training to local sites, and site leaders work with local teens to offer sessions that reflect their interests and needs.

To date, Teen Reading Lounge has launched in 78 public libraries across Pennsylvania and reached more than 600 teens. Participants show gains in interpersonal skills, communication, critical thinking and literacy, as well as creativity and confidence—essential skills for a successful workforce and a civically engaged society.

Ask someone to talk about the humanities, and they’ll likely mention such subjects as history, literature and philosophy, and more often than not they’ll imagine a university setting. But the humanities—and a solid humanities education—are much more than just knowledge in these areas, and more than just classes at elite colleges.

The humanities and the skills they teach provide a path to collaboration and action toward positive change. The current state of our nation—divided politically, economically and culturally—reinforces the urgent and continuing need for the humanities in our everyday lives: ways of thinking, learning and coming together that identify and respect differences, nourish a sense of shared humanity and provide context as we work together to shape the future.

Across the nation, communities benefit from programs like Teen Reading Lounge, which are produced by state humanities councils. Councils receive core funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities; their collective power and reach make NEH a small agency with an enormous impact.

State humanities councils work in more than 5,300 communities—rural, suburban and urban—in nearly every congressional district. They partner with more than 9,200 organizations annually, including libraries, K-12 schools and universities, veterans’ organizations and local governments, just to name a few categories. Through this extensive web of partnerships, councils served more than 44 million people through in-person events and almost 120 million people through virtual events in 2015.

When NEH provides funds to state humanities councils, which in turn produce programs and provide grants in individual communities, federal dollars can effectively address specific local needs. To continue producing and supporting meaningful local education programs, state humanities councils depend on a strong NEH and the core funding allocated to councils through the agency.

Recent media reports have suggested that the Trump administration may propose severe cuts to NEH funding or elimination of the agency. While these reports are concerning, we at PHC are heartened by the considerable bipartisan support we’ve seen for the work of state councils in recent years.

As federal budget requests take shape later this spring, we urge you to take action to advocate for the humanities. Especially now—when critical thinking is imperative to process fast-paced change at the national level, and when collaboration is key to shaping the future of our local communities—the humanities are essential to our democracy and our daily lives.

Laurie Zierer is executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. Learn how you can advocate for the humanities in public life at pahumanities.org.