Blog: Humanities and the Superstructure of Higher Life

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October is Arts and Humanities Month. Governor Gordon recently proclaimed: “The state of Wyoming recognizes the significant contributions of arts and humanities in enriching our lives, fostering creativity, promoting cultural understanding and strengthening our democracy.”

Expression through the arts and understanding through the humanities benefit our people, our communities, and the state we love. Another statesman, one hundred and twenty years before, understood this, too. President Theodore Roosevelt congratulated Wyoming “for the building of that higher life.”

In 1903, President Roosevelt toured Wyoming for weeks. Besides the legendary ride from Laramie to Cheyenne on a gift horse from Douglas (Roosevelt renamed the horse “Wyoming”), he gave scores of speeches in places like Gillette, Moorcroft, Newcastle, Evanston, Laramie, and Cheyenne.

Our 13-year-old state had a population of a mere 108,000 people in 1903. Yellowstone had already been designated as a national park, but it would be a few years before Devils Tower would become the first National Monument. The Reclamation Act, championed by Roosevelt, had recently passed, “reclaiming” the arid western lands for “homemaking” pioneers, ranchers, and farmers. All these themes were mentioned in his Wyoming speeches, where he was also proud to observe the natural, intellectual, civic, and cultural wealth of the state.

At Evanston, Roosevelt proclaimed “…my belief in the future of the state is based in no small degree upon the way in which you are taking care that the next generation, like the present, shall be trained in mind as well as in body, and in what counts for more than mind or body—in character.” Wyoming must build “the superstructure of the higher life—moral, intellectual, spiritual—or the mere material advancement will go for little.”

The humanities are the scaffolding of the superstructure of higher life. Literature, philosophy, history, ethics, religions studies and the arts provide the ideas, values, and narratives that shape our understanding of the world and ourselves.

Our lives, our communities and our state are wealthier because of arts and humanities. Artistic expression and understanding through the humanities are important personally and civically. They create meaningful relationships, collaborations, and connections. They cultivate innovation, creative thinking and problem solving. They foster a marketplace of ideas and inspiration. Arts and humanities are not just the superstructure of higher life, they are the superstructure of our democracy.

In 1965 a bipartisan Congress would pass the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act creating the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens” read the Act. “The practice of art and the study of the humanities require constant dedication and devotion.”

From the Act sprung the National Endowment of the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. A few years later, state arts councils found homes in state governments and state humanities councils became independent non-profit organizations with close ties to their states.

Wyoming Humanities Council was a national model for this non-profit structure more than fifty years ago. Historian T.A. Larson, one of Wyoming Humanities Council’s founders, wrote in the second edition of History of Wyoming, “Humanists…have brought their cultural traditions to bear on foreign policy questions, problems of the environment, the implications of technology, women’s rights issues, pop culture, and social problems.”

The policy issues Larson outlined are still prevalent, albeit with different flavors. Foreign policy questions still abound with current wars in Ukraine and Israel. The environment and our connection to it is passionately debated with the BLM Rock Springs Draft Resource Management Plan. Artificial intelligence is threatening a world in which technology becomes the master. That status of women in the Equality State (and who can be counted as one) continue to be an important topic, especially considering that women make up less than sixteen percent of the Legislature. We either cringe or smile at the popular online theory “Wyoming doesn’t exist.” Social problems, opportunities, and sources of inspiration are found within many communities across the state—from Native Americans to veterans.

In 2026, the United States will honor the 250th Anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. States, including Wyoming, are gearing up for a multi-year celebration of this grand experiment in democracy. The commemorations allow for a reflection on the past and a look toward the future.

That document was written for the future, justified by the grievances of the present, and inspired by the histories and thoughts of the ancient Greeks. The Declaration was a product of the humanities: philosophy, religion, art, poetry, history, language, civic discourse. It imagined and ultimately changed the course of human events.

The first few lines of the Declaration, “when in the course of human events,” is a poetic allusion to a river. Roosevelt, speaking to a group of several thousand in 1903 at Laramie also used a river as a metaphor. “The stream will not rise higher than the source” he said. “The government cannot in the long run, in a government of the people, be better than the average of the people.”

The humanities and arts raise us, our communities, and our democracy to new levels. As Governor Gordon states in his recent proclamation, “Let us embrace the power of the arts and humanities to inspire, educate, and unite us, –fostering civic participation, mutual understanding and a thriving cultural landscape that reflects the true spirit of Wyoming.