Saturday, July 02, 2016

Zeroing Out Connecticut Humanities - an op-ed submitted to the Hartford Courant

It seems like every fifteen years or so, Connecticut’s lawmakers, in a fit of pique, go after Connecticut’s history and culture.  

In July 2002, angry that the then-Connecticut Historical Commission was doing its job and calling attention to a landmark headquarters that a powerful corporation wanted to tear down, the legislature slashed more than half a million dollars from the Commission’s budget—forcing it to shut down the four state history museums at the height of the tourist season.

In an op-ed that year, I called the state’s assault on its history a “self-inflicted lobotomy.” Public outcry forced the legislature and Governor Rowland to relent, and the funding was restored. But the humanities world was put on notice: you are not safe.

This year, it’s the Governor’s pique that’s responsible for a much more devastating assault. The Democratic caucus failed to take up his admittedly sensible prison reform agenda. To teach the lawmakers a lesson, the governor line-item vetoed $20+ million they had approved in the FY2016-17 state budget. Included in these cuts: all $1.73 million in state aid for Connecticut Humanities—two-thirds of its entire budget.

Few institutions touch more Connecticut residents than Connecticut Humanities (cthumanities.org). Just a few of the organizations they support include the Otis Library in Norwich, the Sharon Historical Society, Hartford’s Sankofa Kuumba Cultural Arts Consortium, Wethersfield’s Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, and the Russell Library in Middletown. Most of these grants are, In the grand scheme of things, tiny—few are more than $4,000. But they catalyze dynamic, volunteer-driven organizations that change lives and bring pride to communities.  Even if these programs did not generete a multiplier effect of heritage tourism dollars—which they do—Connecticut Humanities’ grants would represent an extraordinary return on investment. It is hard to imagine another cut of this small size that could inflict more damage on Connecticut’s spirit and imagination.

One of the crown jewels of  Connecticut Humanities is Connecticut History Day (www.historydayct.org). Each year, thousands of Connecticut students in grades 6 through 12 make a part of history their own, creating original exhibits, performances, documentaries, websites, and essays. Dozens of Connecticut students represented our state at the National History Day Contest at the University of Maryland, and several took home top honors in their categories. Participation in History Day not only gives students the skills to be thoughtful and informed citizens, it leads to measurable improvement on standardized tests in a broad range of subjects.

After years of scrambling to find sponsorship and funding, Connecticut History Day recently gained a solid institutional foundation, being administered by the Old State House and Connecticut Historical Society, with funding from Connecticut Humanities. That foundation is now lost.

In yet another hit to the Old State House, the new state budget transferred control of the building from the Office of Legislative Management to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection--resulting in the, at least temporary, closure of this landmark building in the process. A Courant editorial of June 30 lamented the shuttering of the OSH, asserting that “the state legislature gets all the credit for this mess.” No, they get their share, but the lion’s share goes to Governor Malloy.

Connecticut culture-lovers who had suffered through several administrations that did little to support the state’s heritage and history responded with joy to Governor Malloy’s first inaugural address, which reached back to lessons from our past for inspiration to confront our present challenges. This governor is far more culpable than his predecessors, who were indifferent to Connecticut’s humanities. He is well aware that every dollar spent on our cultural assets is repaid many-fold in tourist revenues. Connecticut’s residents should tell the governor to remember his inaugural pledge, and to reverse this mean-spirited and devastating action.

Robert Pierce Forbes, Ph.D.
New Haven


The author, a professional public historian, was the founder and for several years the coordinator of the Torrington regional contest of Connecticut History Day.

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