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The Humanities: what are they worth to you, and to us?

An opinion piece by Christopher Sommerich, executive director of Humanities Nebraska

There is a spirited debate about the importance of educating our young people in the humanities —the study of history, culture, philosophy, language, religion and so on — when the job market is pushing for degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

There are good reasons why as a nation we are concerned that we not fall behind in the STEM areas and that our political representatives do a better job working together to find solutions to our federal budget issues. But a recent national report just released by the Commission on Humanities and Social Sciences brings to light a startling trend of simultaneously decreasing funding of the humanities and increasing needs for humanities education, with “grave, long-term consequences for the nation.”

It is at our own peril that we fail to recognize that support for the humanities and social sciences at all stages of education and in public life is vital to the prosperity of our country. How will we know where we are going if we don’t know where we have been? How do we hold on to our quality of life and our freedom to live as we choose while billions of others strive to get where we are? How will we maintain strong alliances and influence other nations if we don’t understand the cultures or perspectives of others? And what good is all of the science or technology or engineering or math in the world if we don’t have the imagination or understanding to guide us in applying in effectively?

J.B. Milliken, president of the University of Nebraska, remarked to me recently that he is “convinced that we need to be thinking less about the relative value of STEM versus humanities and more about a well-rounded education…English and art majors should have an understanding of science and technology, and engineers should experience great art and literature.”

In their report, “The Heart of the Matter,” the Commission on Humanities and Social Sciences identified three major goals in advancing the humanities in America: educating Americans with the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a rapidly changing world; fostering a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong; and equipping the nation for leadership in an interconnected world by using the humanities to nurture understanding of different cultures and sensitivity to different perspectives. We all need to do what we can to encourage our government, our educational institutions, and other elements of our communities to remain committed to the humanities for the good of our young people and our future.

One reason I am grateful that I live in Nebraska is a quality of life that is enhanced through a flourishing series of partnerships involving the humanities. At all levels of government and across the political spectrum, I see strong appreciation for what Humanities Nebraska is doing in partnership with other entities all across the state. We work with libraries, schools, and community centers to bring families together to read books and discuss the themes and how they relate to their lives. We bring high school classes from across the state together to explore global issues and why they matter in Nebraska. We partner with many local community organizations and volunteers to explore important events of our past (and how they affect us today) through the eyes of historical figures. We are plugged in to an impressively vibrant network of cultural and educational institutions and activities reaching every corner of the state. In the past five years, 1,005 different entities booked a humanities speaker through our speakers bureau, and 178,000 Nebraskans attended those programs. That statistic alone shows how strong of an appreciation for the humanities exists here.

On the final evening of the Humanities Nebraska Chautauqua in Grand Island last week, Ponca chief Standing Bear began his amazing story by telling the hushed audience of 600 a Native American creation story. In this story, the question that brought humanity from the realm of the stars to Mother Earth was the critical moment when the son asked the father, “Who Am I?” The father’s response? “Son, now that you have asked that question, everything must change.”

That question is vital to our survival and our prosperity, and the humanities provide the tools to answer.

“The Heart of the Matter” report can be found online at

Humanities Nebraska programming is made possible by:

and generous individuals, foundations, and businesses across Nebraska.