Why the Humanities: Hardwired for Story

As far as we know, human beings are the only creatures that tell stories. Think about that for a minute. Let it sink in. To the best of our knowledge, we're the only form of life in the whole universe that can imagine the future and chronicle the past.

We're the only species that understands our planet's infinitesimally small place in the great black void of space. For all we know, perhaps the reason for our existence is to tell stories. And oh, how we love to tell stories.

This aspect of being human is so much a part of our daily lives that we rarely stop to think about it. And yet, when we come home from work, the first question we are likely to be asked is this: "How was your day?" It is invitation to tell a story. In a similar way, after a funeral, we gather in a church hall to remember the deceased and we resurrect them through words.

Most of our entertainments are rooted in stories—movies, TV shows, plays—and although we don't think of sports as a type of story, they surely are. We tune into ball games to see who will win and who will lose. Who will be the hero? Who will be a villain? Who will lift the trophy?

We are hardwired for story.

All too often, storytelling is seen as somehow frivolous and unnecessary when it comes to governmental funding. Stories, however, offer identity and moments of learning and national mythology. Of all the great scientific wonders that rise up from any given age—of all the political rulings and wars that make up the vast catalog of the human experience—what lasts are the stories that are created. Put another way, what do you know about Elizabethan England? I'll wager that what you do know is grounded in the plays written by William Shakespeare.

The same is true of Mark Twain and our understanding of the nineteenth-century. Or how about something more recent like the Vietnam War? Increasingly, our understanding of that particular conflict is rooted in the stories of Tim O’Brien and Robert Olen Butler. (Incidentally, these two renowned writers will soon be coming to a stage near me thanks to the South Dakota Festival of Books, which is directly funded by my local Humanities Council; you have such an organization too, and I’m sure they bring nourishing intellectual life to your own community.) What will last from our own time will not be the politics of the day or the grand technologies we invent; it will be the stories and our reactions to those things.

If we want our voices to echo down through the ages, we need the humanities. Not only do the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities offer vital support for literary artists today, but these institutions also invest in the future. By supporting the creation and amplification of stories, we create time machines that allow future generations to understand our era better.

Don't believe me? Whenever I open a book by Charles Dickens, I float out of my body and I live, however temporarily, in London during the 1850s. Or if I open Bao Ninh's, The Sorrow of War, I understand the Vietnam War from the perspective of a soldier who fought against the United States.

By supporting the Humanities, we benefit from stories that make us learn and grow. For me, this is the magic of storytelling. Words bring strangers together, and this includes strangers who are separated by centuries. While it's noble to invest in new highways and bridges, what really matters are the invisible pathways that draw us together as human beings. That is worth investing in.

Stories offer us identity and hope. Stories help us to remember the past and imagine new futures. Stories make us human. Stories give us meaning. To cut funding is not only a denial of the essence of our species, but it erases our voice from the future.

The work that the NEA and NEH does is as vital to life as those institutions that are charged with protecting the environment. Just as we need clean air and water to exist, we need the breath of story in our lungs. It is the oxygen of our imagination.

Note: This post appeared, in slightly different form, for a series called “Why the Humanities?” which is curated by the South Dakota Humanities Council.

Patrick Hicks is the author of ten books, including the critically and popular acclaimed, The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust, Adoptable, and The Collector of Names. He is the Writer-in-Residence at Augustana University as well as a faculty member at the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College. His website is www.patrickhicks.org

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