S2E4 William D. Adams’ Reading of “The Urgency of Democracy”

In preparation for election day on November 8, 2020, this episode presents William D. Adams—the tenth chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities—reading his essay “The Urgency of Democracy.”

[00:00:00] Eric Miller: In preparation for election day today, we are hosting William D. Adams, the 10th chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. For a reading of his essay, “The Urgency of Democracy”, William D. Adams served as the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 2014 to 2017, and where he launched a new initiative, The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square, as a way to demonstrate the critical role humanities, scholarship play in public life. He was president of Colby College from 2000 to 2014 and served previously as president at Bucknell University. At Colby, Adams led a multi-million dollar campaign that included expansion of the Kobe College Museum of Art and Support for other humanities based initiatives.

[00:00:45] This is the Maine Policy Matters Podcast from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine. I am Eric Miller, research associate at the center. On each episode of Maine Policy Matters, we discuss public policy issues relevant to the state of Maine. The article covered in this episode was published as the Margaret Chase Smith essay in Maine Policy Review, Volume 24, Number 1. Here is William D. Adams.

[00:01:11] William D. Adams: “The Urgency of Democracy”, William D. Adams. Maine is well known for producing impressive political leaders and for producing impressive women political leaders in particular. Senator Margaret Chase Smith is rightly remembered as the first of these in the contemporary era, and anticipating and no doubt inspiring the impressive careers of Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Chellie Pingree, among others. Senator Smith grew up in Skowhegan, where her father was the town barber. She attended Lincoln and Garfield elementary schools and Skowhegan High School. I don’t know what subjects

[00:01:50] Senator Smith learned at Lincoln and Garfield elementary schools or at Skowhegan High School, but considering her distinguished career, it’s not too fanciful to imagine that they included healthy doses of civics, American political history, and the American constitutional tradition.

[00:02:09] In Maine and across the country, these foundational concerns of primary and secondary education, along with many other humanities subjects are under increasing pressure. We are familiar with the reasons, fewer resources, the pressure of testing regimes and expectations, the introduction of new technologies and misguided, if understandable, anxiety over career readiness, which continued to envelop many of our policy frameworks for assessing and reforming education.

[00:02:44] The effects of this pressure are not surprising. According to statistics produced by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in both 1994 and 2010, “a substantial majority” of school-aged children in the United States failed to demonstrate proficiency in US history. Worse still, nearly 60% of high school seniors graduating in those years failed to demonstrate even a basic knowledge of US history. It’s some consolation, though not much, that the history proficiency of students in the fourth and eighth grades improved between 1994 and 2010. Though the percentages of students with only a basic understanding remains depressingly low.

[00:03:37] Student achievement in civics shows a somewhat more encouraging trend in this realm. Fourth and eighth graders showed improvement between 1998 and 2010. Still less than 20% of all students in these grades demonstrated civic achievements, levels of proficient or advanced. As was true of the national assessment of educational progress in other humanities subjects, strikingly lower levels were observed among older students with only 64% of 12th graders trading a mid-level of basic achievement in 2010.

[00:04:16] In what seems almost surely to be a related development, meaningful participation in the United States continues to decline and civic engagement of all kinds is increasingly fragile for evidence. We need look no further than the most recent general election as the Washington Post reported in 2014:

[00:04:41] General election voter turnout for the 2014 midterms was the lowest it’s been in any election cycle since World War II, according to early projections by the United States Election Project, just 36.4% of the voting eligible population cast ballots as of last Tuesday, continuing a steady decline in midterm voter participation that has spanned several decades. The results are dismal but not surprising. Participation has been dropping since the 1964 election when voter turnout was at nearly 49%.

[00:05:25] It’s hard to imagine a robust democratic political culture without a citizenry that is at least proficient in US history, the basic structure and workings of our political institutions, and in the founding principles and values of American democracy, and it’s hard to imagine proficiency in these areas without an abiding commitment to civic education in our schools, colleges, and universities.

[00:05:53] But the democratic significance of the humanities goes well beyond the need to cultivate specifically civic and historical sensibilities. Democracy and democratic citizenship also require the ability to think critically and clearly about the central issues of shared concern. To imagine alternatives to standing arrangements, to entertain and advance the common good, and perhaps most important of all to feel empathy and respect for others. These capacities are in some important sense inherent to human nature, but they require the cultivation, reinforcement, and testing that lie at the heart of humanistic learning, exchange and understanding.

[00:06:40] Democracy flourishes alongside a robust sense of place. This may be especially true in Maine where sense of place is such an important part of collective identity with the help of the National Endowment for the Humanities scholars from the University of Maine have recently given to the people of Maine a remarkable new asset related to place, the historical Atlas of Maine. Now a beautiful printed book ,The Atlas is entering a planning phase to become a national model as an interactive digital resource. It will then serve as a resource for schools and individuals across the state and beyond.

[00:07:24] Maine also has another wonderful humanities resource in the Maine Humanities Council, one of the most energetic and admired in the national system of state and territorial humanities councils supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Maine Humanities Council is doing exemplary work around the state, providing resources and leadership to the statewide humanities network.

[00:07:51] Over the years, Maine has also served as a mecca for creative writers and artists, and now boasts an international reputation for its liter literary and artistic production. Our lives are richer and fuller as a result of such creativity in our backyard, we’ve also experienced the power and impact of the cultural economy, which will be such an important part of Maine’s economic future.

[00:08:18] The humanities matter in all of these ways. They provide richness, beauty, and wisdom in our lives, and they help our communities to flourish, but we need them, especially because they provide the intellectual and emotional foundations for democratic life and citizenship for Maine and the country as a whole, the urgency of the humanities is the urgency of democracy.

[00:08:50] Eric Miller: What you just heard was William D. Adams’ reading of his essay entitled, “The Urgency of Democracy”. Main Policy Review is a peer reviewed academic journal published by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. For all citations for data provided in this episode, please refer to the original article in Maine Policy Review.

[00:09:07] The editorial team for Maine Policy Review is made up of Joyce Rumery, Linda Silka and Barbara Harrity. Jonathan Rubin directs the policy center. A thank you to Jayson Heim and Kathryn Swacha, script writers for Maine Policy Matters, and to Daniel Soucier, our production consultant. In two weeks, we’ll be hosting Liam Riordan, Adelaide and Alan Bird Professor of History at the University of Maine and Chair on the City of Bangor’s Historic Preservation Commission for an interview on his perspective on Maine’s history.

[00:09:36] We would like to thank you for listening to Maine Policy Matters from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine. You can find us online by searching Maine Policy Matters on your web browser. If you enjoyed this episode, please follow us on your preferred social media platform to stay updated on new episode releases.

[00:09:53] I’m Eric Miller. Thanks for listening and please join us next time on Maine Policy Matters.