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A Jeffersonian Sense of Proportion

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From David McCullough

The historian David McCullough sounded a warning on the deep but seldom-examined consequences of cutbacks in federal spending for arts education and cultural programs when he delivered the Nancy Hanks Lecture on the Arts and Public Policy in Washington last month. The lecture, presented by the American Council for the Arts and sponsored by the Philip Morris Companies Inc., traced a public shift in fiscal priorities that Mr. McCullough said threatens the wholeness of the education future generations will receive. The excerpt below elaborates:

Culture might be defined as what matters to a society. And certainly a good measure of what matters is how we spend our money.

Nearly everywhere in the country libraries are shortening their hours, laying off staff, putting a freeze on book purchases, or closing their doors. The explanation always is that there's not enough money.

Yet in all the years of the Great Depression, not one library is known to have closed its doors anywhere in all the country. Not one, and in the worst of times when our material abundance individually and as a nation was nothing like what it is today. In Massachusetts, where I live, 20 libraries have closed in the last three years alone. In California since 1980 more than half the public school libraries have closed. Libraries in Los Angeles are open now only a few days a week. This in California, Golden California.

The Library of Congress, too, has lately cut back its services, closing the main reading room, plus six other reading rooms, on Sundays, a severe blow to anyone wishing to use the library on weekends.

As a personal note I might add that it was on a weekend at the Library of Congress in the early 60's that I happened to see a collection of newly acquired, rare old photographs taken in Johnstown, Pa., soon after the calamitous flood of 1889, photographs that led me to write my first book, that led me to writing history as I had never anticipated I would. So I am particularly sympathetic to those with full-time jobs who can only make use of the library on weekends.

How do we spend our money? For public libraries nationwide: $4.3 billion a year, which is considerably less than we spend on potato chips or sneakers. Less than we spend on our lawns or for cellular phones. Last year, we spent $7.5 billion on our lawns, $9 billion on cellular phones.

Have we changed so much in our regard for libraries since the Great Depression? Not to judge by the demand for library services. Library use, even with all the cutbacks, is up substantially. What is not up is our willingness to pay the price, or more specifically to vote the taxes to pay the price--for a measure of civilization that has long been standard to our way of life and that so many benefit from in ways far beyond anything determinable by cost-accounting.

Still more serious, even more shameful, is what is happening to programs in the arts in our schools, and it is this especially that I want to talk about. All across the country arts programs in the schools are being cut or eliminated altogether, and it's a disgrace. We are cheating our children.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident,'' we teach them from history books, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'' But how will they have any idea of happiness--of all that Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he used that word--if they are shut off from art and architecture and music and theater and dance and literature, if they are denied that part of life, that vital center, if they have only a limited chance at the experience of self-expression? Or no chance at all?

There are new figures for what's to be spent by the federal government on the arts. And for the first time there is a specific allotment for art and music in the schools. For fiscal 1995 it's to be $75 million. Federally funded cultural programs--including money for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and education in the arts--comes to approximately $600 million, while the overall figure, the grand total--which includes money for the Smithsonian, museums, art galleries, and the like--is $882 million. And what's that? It's a pittance is what it is--$882 million is one six-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget.

We need to recover a Jeffersonian sense of proportion. Jefferson, whose passion for education exceeded that of any of our political leaders, worked out his own guide "to the faculties of the mind,'' as he called it, in his classification system for his library. This was the private collection of 6,500 books assembled over 50 years that Jefferson sold to the government at half its value to create a new Congressional library after the British burned the Capitol during the War of 1812. It took 11 wagons to haul the books here and what a picture that must have made, as they left Monticello and started through the countryside.

There were three main categories and he gave them equal importance. First was "Memory,'' by which he meant history--history civil, history ecclesiastical, natural history, history ancient and modern. Second was "Reason,'' which included philosophy, the law, and mathematics. The third category, titled "Imagination,'' was the fine arts, and on this lovely spring evening in the city he helped design, I would like to mention that within fine arts, along with painting, sculpture, architecture, music, poetry, drama, oratory, and criticism, he included gardening.

Three parts equally weighted and history and the arts are two of the three--history, philosophy, and the fine arts.

Reproductions of Mr. McCullough's speech are available for $3.00 from the American Council for the Arts, 1 East 53rd St., New York, N.Y. 10022.

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