Storytelling and Humanities Funding


From Douglas Sladen, “Oriental Cairo,” 1911, Wikipedia Commons

Over at the Huffington Post, Patrick Hicks, the Writer-in-Residence at Augustana College, reminds us of the importance of story as it relates to the funding of the humanities.

Here is a taste:

As far as we know, human beings are the only creatures that tell stories. Think about that for a minute. Let it sink in. To the best of our knowledge, we’re the only form of life in the whole universe that can imagine the future and chronicle the past.

We’re the only species that understands our planet’s infinitesimally small place in the great black void of space. For all we know, perhaps the reason for our existence is to tell stories. And oh, how we love to tell stories.

This aspect of being human is so much a part of our daily lives that we rarely stop to think about it. And yet, when we come home from work, the first question we are likely to be asked is this: “How was your day?” It is invitation to tell a story. In a similar way, after a funeral, we gather in a church hall to remember the deceased and we resurrect them through words…

We are hardwired for story.

All too often, storytelling is seen as somehow frivolous and unnecessary when it comes to governmental funding. Stories, however, offer identity and moments of learning and national mythology. Of all the great scientific wonders that rise up from any given age—of all the political rulings and wars that make up the vast catalog of the human experience—what lasts are the stories that are created…

If we want our voices to echo down through the ages, we need the humanities. Not only do the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanitiesoffer vital support for literary artists today, but these institutions also invest in the future. By supporting the creation and amplification of stories, we create time machines that allow future generations to understand our era better…

By supporting the Humanities, we benefit from stories that make us learn and grow. For me, this is the magic of storytelling. Words bring strangers together, and this includes strangers who are separated by centuries. While it’s noble to invest in new highways and bridges, what really matters are the invisible pathways that draw us together as human beings. That is worth investing in.

Stories offer us identity and hope. Stories help us to remember the past and imagine new futures. Stories make us human. Stories give us meaning. To cut funding is not only a denial of the essence of our species, but it erases our voice from the future.

Read the entire piece here.

Here is I wrote about story in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

The best historians tell stories about the past–stories that have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Most stories end with a lesson or a “moral.”  While a historian may not explicitly preach the moral of his or her story, if told in a compelling fashion, the moral will always be evident to the reader.  We use narratives to make sense of our world.  It is how we bring order to our own human experiences and the human experiences of others.  Jonathan Gottschall, in his recent The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, reminds us that the mind “yields helplessly to the suction of story.” If a quick glance at the New York Times best-seller list over the course of the last decade is any indication, the history books that have reached the largest audience are written by narrative historians.  Writers such as David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and the late Stephen Ambrose have brought the past alive to ordinary readers through their gifted prose and storytelling abilities.  They have proved that a book about the past, in the hands of a skillfull historian-writer, can be a page-turnerThis is because, as historian William Cronon writes

As storytellers we commit ourselves to the task of judging the consequences of human actions, trying to understand the choices that confronted people whose lives we narrate so as to capture the full tumult of their world.  In the dilemmas they faced we discover our own, and at the intersection of the two we locate the moral of the story.  If our goal is to tell tales that make the past meaningful, then we cannot escape struggling over the values that define what meaning is.