Why the Humanities are Necessary to Public Policy, and How

(90-Second Read)

Policy in Brief:

Anna Sims Bartel, associate director of Cornell University’s Center for Engaged Learning and Research, argues that if public policy exists to guide and govern human behavior then policymakers need critical self-reflection, recognition of natural and human systems, awareness of our mutual interdependence, commitments to equity, fairness, and democracy, as well as narrative imagination to practice empathy.

Fascinating Features:

The humanities give birth to public policy through the creation of its core concepts such as human rights, legal systems, democracy, the common good.

The humanities are an invaluable tool for public policy that foster better understanding, fuller engagement, wiser problem-solving, deeper appreciation, and richer living.

The are four stages in the life cycle of public policy, each of which would be inconceivable without the humanities and powerfully enriched by better humanistic training:

  1. Conceptualization (What are the issues, according to whom, how do we understand them?)
  2. Crafting (Finding workable solutions and alliances)
  3. Implementation (Using cultural and historical knowledge to put ideas into practice)
  4. Evaluation (Ethically assessing and assigning value to changes)

In Maine, policy and humanities are intersecting in many different ways across a variety of venues. Two examples Bartel utilizes include the Maine Equal Justice Partners and Let’s Talk About It (a program of the Maine Humanities Council).


The humanities provide a new and different toolkit for the creation and execution of public policy. They help us think about the common good to develop our imaginative capacities to design better approaches. American policymaking is based on an approach of fighting against a wrong, reacting to something that is already a problem. The humanities allow us to imagine a world without the problem. To move forward from a place of hope where we can imagine the ideal community that we want to live in, think collaboratively about what that means in practice, and then to built it.

Image of Bartel

Dig Deeper:

Bartel, Anna S. 2015. “Why the Humanities Are Necessary to Public Policy, and How.” Maine Policy Review 24(1): 117 -122 (5 pages; 6-minute read)

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