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Commentary: Celebrating the Pulitzers at 100, and the humanities by Laurie Zierer

Monday, April 18, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Amy Seasholtz
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By Laurie Zierer

When he arrived in St. Louis after the Civil War, broke and speaking limited English, Joseph Pulitzer did not seem destined to become the publisher of two major newspapers and one of the country's great benefactors of the humanities.

The winners of the Pulitzer Prizes - awarded in journalism, letters, and drama - will be handed out Monday for the 100th time. To mark the anniversary, the Pennsylvania Humanities Council will put on several events in the coming months.

For instance, the council and Philadelphia Media Network are cosponsoring a project to encourage civic dialogue on the importance of journalism, freedom of the press, writing, and the arts in private lives and public life. This is part of the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfire Initiative, a joint venture of the Pulitzer Prize Board and the Federation of State Humanities Councils.

In Philadelphia, the project will include a website on Philly.com, a social media campaign to encourage virtual dialogue around the Pulitzer materials, and a panel discussion in September at the National Constitution Center exploring the relationships among the news, First Amendment protections for the press, and ethical questions faced by journalists.

There will also be a September event in Pittsburgh focusing on Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. This panel will explore different ways of telling the tale of our cities over time, using Wilson's work set in Pittsburgh's Hill District as an entry point.

In all of these projects, the goal is to illuminate the impact of journalism and the humanities on American life today, to imagine their future, and to inspire new generations to consider the values represented by the body of Pulitzer Prize-winning work.

Why do the humanities matter today?

Three years ago, I wrote in an essay that the humanities "inspire us to think critically, creatively solve problems, understand and appreciate cultural differences, become informed citizens, and build a better world for the next generation." I went on to argue that they "provide the skills and knowledge that Pennsylvanians must master to succeed in work and life in today's global economy." Today that task has taken on greater urgency.

We live in an increasingly challenging environment of funding cuts in education and public services, angry civic dialogue, and communication dominated by sound bites and 140-character "messages."

As National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman William D. Adams recently noted in addressing the major challenges that define this moment in American history, we face questions that "appear at the intersections of our history, culture, values, and ideas." These questions cannot be addressed primarily through technology or science, but they can be addressed through skills and knowledge developed through the humanities. And they cannot be addressed by local and national leaders alone; they must be addressed by all of us.

At a time when the quality of civic dialogue is declining, the humanities offer hope and focus. They provide space for us to explore what matters most in our lives, build cross-cultural connections, open minds, and reveal new horizons of possibility.

The National Endowment for the Humanities' charter legislation states that "democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens," and the framework of our democratic society is a government "of the people."

Yet Pennsylvania, the birthplace of this framework, ranks 50th in the nation when it comes to discussing politics with family and friends, and 29th in working with neighbors to improve our communities, according to the 2011 Pennsylvania Civic Health Index.

To contribute to their communities and draw strength from them, people need to feel a sense of connection and involvement. The humanities help nurture this kind of engagement - and build the social capital so badly needed in today's society.

Laurie Zierer is executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. Lzierer@Pahumanities.org



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