We the People: The Urgency of Memory

By Cole, Bruce | Humanities, January/February 2003 | Go to article overview

We the People: The Urgency of Memory


Cole, Bruce, Humanities


THE WHITE HOUSE WILL HOST NEH'S FIRST ANNUAL "HEROES OF HISTORY" lecture this February, with historian Robert V. Remini speaking. The same evening, scholarships will be awarded to five high school juniors for their prize-winning essays on "The Idea of America." The event is part of an NEH initiative call WE THE PEOPLE, which is designed to strengthen America's grasp of its own history. The themes of this multiyear program were touched on by Endowment Chairman Bruce Cole in a speech he gave last summer in New York to commemorate the attack on the World Trade Center.

IN TIMES OF CRISIS, THE HUMANITIES and the arts are often praised as sources of consolation, comfort, expression, and insight, but rarely seen as essential, or even high priorities. But they are much more than that. Indeed, the humanities help form the bedrock of civic understanding and civil order.

The range of the humanities disciplines is wide; their impact deep. The classics and archeology show us from whence our civilization came. The study of literature and art shape our sense of beauty. The knowledge of philosophy and religion give meaning to our concepts of justice and goodness.

Indeed, the state of the humanities has real implications for the state of our union. Our nation is in a conflict driven by religion, philosophy, political ideology, and views of history-all humanities subjects.

The attack on September 11, 2001, targeted not only innocent civilians, but also the fabric of our culture. The terrorists struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and aimed at either the White House or Capitol domeall structures rich in meaning, and bearing witness to the United States' free commerce, military strength, and democratic government. As such, they also housed many of the artifacts-the manuscripts, art, and archives-that form our history and heritage.

In the weeks following the attack, the NEH awarded a grant to Heritage Preservation to conduct a survey of the damage to our cultural holdings. It found that the attack obliterated numerous art collections of great worth. Cantor Fitzgerald's renowned "museum in the sky" is lost, as well as priceless works by Rodin, Picasso, Hockney, Lichtenstein, Corbusier, Mir6, and others. Archaeological artifacts from the African Burial Ground and other Manhattan sites are gone forever, as are irreplaceable records from the Helen Keller archives. Artists perished alongside their artifacts. Sculptor Michael Richards died as he worked in his studio on the ninety-second floor of Tower One. His last work, now lost, was a statue commemorating the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.

Of course, the loss of artifacts and art, no matter how priceless and precious, is dwarfed by the loss of life. Each life that was snuffed out that day was itself a work of art and a historical record. Each person who died on September 11 meant the world to others. One of the clearest lessons of that awful day is that individuals mattertheir decisions, their courage, their sacrifices, their hopes, their lives. They-not theories-are the stuff of history.

Today, it is all the more urgent that we study American institutions, culture, and history. There is much we have lost, but there is much we have learned.

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