Friday, March 5, 2010

Op-Ed in Today's Philadelphia Inquirer

We have an op-ed in today's Philadelphia Inquirer on Ed Rendell's budget cuts to Pennsylvania historical sites. I say "we" because I could not have written the piece without the help of two students--Katie Garland and Valerie Weaver--who did most of the research. Thanks Katie and Valerie!

Here it is:

State is Erasing its History
By John Fea

The writer Robert Penn Warren once wrote, "History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future."

Gov. Rendell apparently does not agree. His recent decision to cut more state funding for museums and historical sites should be of grave concern to anyone who cares about the future of Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission took a major hit in Rendell's last budget. It was forced to lay off 85 employees, or more than one-third of its staff.

Those cuts have debilitated historical parks and museums throughout the commonwealth. The Pennsylvania State Museum and the State Archives, both in Harrisburg, have had to reduce their hours. Brandywine Battlefield, the largest Revolutionary War battlefield in the United States, remains open, but only because of the efforts of dedicated volunteers.

Virtually every other state museum or historical site in the commonwealth has either significantly reduced its hours or closed its doors. The list of closures includes the Fort Pitt Museum in Pittsburgh and the visitors center at Washington Crossing Historic Park in Bucks County.

The proposed 2010-11 budget, released last month, is not any better. Rendell has decided not to fund the historical commission's museum assistance program. This will make it even more difficult for local historical societies to remain open to the public.

Rendell's budget cuts undermine the very idea of a commonwealth - a community of citizens committed to the public good. And they represent one of the worst forms of individualism and self-interest, which many of the Founding Fathers feared would erode the republic.

Without history, our collective identity is erased. Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century observer of American democracy, understood this well. Americans, he said, are always in danger of producing a generation that "forgets its ancestors," whose members "acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone" and are "apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands." They have no sense of being part of a human community that has existed through time.

We look to the past to understand who we are in the present. But history also teaches us that the past is sometimes like a foreign country - a place where they do things differently.

The Germans who lived in Lancaster County's Ephrata Cloister or on the Landis Valley Farm may seem strange to us. But by learning about their lives, we can develop a deeper appreciation of people with beliefs or lifestyles we do not understand. When everyone has this kind of empathy, society improves.

When we take it seriously, history teaches us to put aside our selfishness and see ourselves as part of a human story that is larger than the moment in which we live. It cures us of our narcissism. It cultivates citizens - active participants in the community that we call the commonwealth.

There is real irony in Rendell's decision to cut funding for historical sites and museums. A governor who wants to improve education has decided to drastically reduce funding for a subject that teaches virtues essential to an informed citizenry.

These cuts will also mean that people lose jobs. As a college professor who trains young men and women to work in public history, I am concerned about opportunities for those who want to dedicate their lives to historical vocations.

But I am even more concerned about what this drastic reduction in funding for historical places will mean for Pennsylvania, and for the ability of its people to face the future.

4 comments:

Luke Harlow said...

As a native Pennsylvanian: Hear, hear!

John, Katie, and Valerie: Well said.

John Fea said...

Thanks, Luke!

JOHN K. ROBINSON said...

Thank you for your excellent appraisal of the consequences of Mr. Rendell's budget and personnel cuts at the Historical and Museum Commission. I believe the history community is being punished for some real or perceived problem they caused the governor, either in his current office or when he was mayor in Philadelphia. No one person should have the power to wipe out the existence of an agency that has existed for decades to care for our physical history and to help us understand what went before us. I wish the governor would take your admonition to heart, but I am very doubtful that he cares.

John Fea said...

John: Thanks for the comment. Any idea what that "real or perceived problem" might be? I can't fathom how the historical community can have enough political power in PA to offend the governor.