Magazine article Humanities

In Focus: Dorothy Schwartz of Maine

Magazine article Humanities

In Focus: Dorothy Schwartz of Maine

Article excerpt

Dorothy Schwartz, director of the Maine Humanities Council, speaks passionately about renewing our civic culture.

She takes her cue from that observer of the American scene, Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote in Democracy in America, "If men are to remain civilized, or are to become civilized, the art of association must develop and improve among them at the same speed as equality of conditions spreads."

For Schwartz, de Tocqueville's ideas have become the cornerstone upon which civic renewal is to be built. Specifically, she asks, what is the council's role in the civic life of the state and how does it fill it now and in the future?

Schwartz, who has been with the Maine council since 1981, and director since 1985, says that the watershed years of 1994-95 forced her and the Maine council to reevaluate its mission and role in the state. Those were the years when NEH funding was drastically cut. The state councils underwent a transformation and are still evolving into a role that marries the humanities to public policy and involvement in people's lives, Schwartz says. "With decreased funding from the NEH, we were forced to change our look," she adds. "It was then that we found a new synergy, a new opportunity to focus our attention on the role we played in Maine's civic life. We reevaluated our mission and purpose. It was all based on the belief that the humanities have an important role to play in the lives of people and communities."

Maine is a largely rural state with a population of 1.2 million people. Forty percent live in urban areas. Its traditional fishing and farming economies have been replaced by a service economy. But large pockets of people have been left behind in a burgeoning economy. Literacy and low reading and math skills for many children are nagging problems. Among the fifty states, it has among the lowest rates of high school graduates going on to college.

Fearing that many people in Maine didn't understand what the council did, Schwartz and the council set about trying to unravel some of the complexity. "We had to give a message to the public that was understandable and provide programs that reached people directly. We came up with a description of the Maine council: 'The Power and Pleasure of Ideas."

The next task was to build on that idea and fashion programs that were community-driven, Schwartz notes.

The approach was in some ways radical, Schwartz says. "We were not talking about a thin cultural veneer of accomplishment. We proposed nothing less than using the power of the humanities to make sure that every Maine student is educated not simply as a technician, but as a complete human being. …

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