Louis XIV's Pet Government Handout

January 09, 1995|By GEORGE H. CALLCOTT

Congressman Gingrich makes us think, all right. Could he possibly mean us, the Maryland Humanities Council, there on his hit list?

Surely not. He is, after all, a humanist himself, making use of history. Our mission is, much like his, to mobilize history, philosophy and literature to strengthen our society.

Conservative? King Louis XIV would have loved the National Endowment for the Humanities, which is the main funding source for the Maryland Humanities Council. The old monarchies believed social stability depended on cultivation of the ancient truths. Today most nations of the world are ahead of us in embracing the humanities for the public good, ahead of us in building bridges from the academies to the public.

A democratic society engulfed by consumer culture most of all needs the tradition and rigor of established disciplines. Without tradition and rigor, popular culture falls to the lowest common denominator.

Actually, support for the human ities is not at all a matter of conservative or liberal ways of thinking. The Maryland Humanities Council is enjoined from advocacy on political issues and we are rigorously non-partisan. In recent congresses, to be sure, our support has come slightly more from Democrats than from Republicans, but the difference is small.

For 20 years the Maryland Humanities Council, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, has served Maryland. We receive about $600,000 annually from the federal and state government -- about 15 cents per Maryland resident. For every dollar we receive from government, we obtain about two dollars in private contributions of time and money. How tragic it would be to lose this philanthropy.

Last year we reached into at least 70 Maryland communities with over 380 programs. There is so much we want to do. There were lectures on Shakespeare, Nietzsche and Emily Dickenson. There were exhibits on Maryland quilts, Chesapeake folk life, Yiddish culture and African masks. There were programs for school children, ethnic groups and residents of retirement communities. There were programs in museums, in prisons, in churches and synagogues, and on the sidewalk.

There was our slightly highbrow journal, The Maryland Humanities, that went to 13,000 people. There was the $l middle-brow television broadcast ''Maryland in the Great Depression'' that won national awards. There was lowbrow street theater that may have reached most of all.

Every one of our programs was designed, not at all as subsidy for intellectuals, but as service for local people. Most programs were initiated by community groups calling on the talent in local cultural and academic institutions.

To be sure, there are professionals within the humanities, especially within our universities, who challenge traditional values with a radical relativism. These ideas may be right or wrong, but the ideas won't go away. It is better for society to come to terms with this thinking, either to accommodate or reject it, than to deny its existence. Our understanding and values must be based on knowledge. They cannot flourish on ignorance.

History, literature and philosophy are largely a search for meaning and values, and most of our programs reflect this search. As Congressman Gingrich says, ours is a time hungry for values. The humanities are main avenues for discovering our nationhood, our community, our family and ourselves.

Few of the 380 programs we funded this year would have occurred without support from the Maryland Humanities Council. The bridges between the academic world and the public -- bridges that reach both ways -- would be more fragile.

The people of Maryland are better off because of our programs. Our society is stronger because of them. Do not cut back on programs that work. Look for ways of strengthening them.

George H. Callcott is a retired University of Maryland history professor and president of the Maryland Humanities Council.

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