Public Humanities Programs and the “Elite” Narrative

Taking a closer look the state of our nation and our state after what most will agree was the most combative presidential election of our lifetimes, clearly reveals the lack of civility and divisions of class, race, and culture that the campaign has exposed.

Many of my fellow humanities council executive directors are already discussing what is at stake and what our role is as we explore the challenge that this election and its aftermath pose to civic life. The lack of political diversity in Wyoming (posited as caused by the social isolation of rural life in this article) complicates the discussion in our state because so many are convinced that a specific ideology has reached such primacy that conversations and discussions about other perspectives are unnecessary—a belief I’ve seen held by those in the majority and those in the minority.

Perhaps the most burning question I have after the election is: how do we get past the issue of class? How will this word “elite,” that became such a powerful allusion during this election, impact our ability to put on public humanities programs? How is the caricature of the “left coast elite” or over-educated snob going to impact those of us who desire the kind of learning and discussion opportunities that humanities councils produce? How can we reach people who think what we do is exclusively for the “elite” in America? This is clearly an issue that needs to be thought about within the context of the state of our nation and what it might mean for higher education and organizations that support life-long learners.

There is much that has been done – and can be done now — to highlight and celebrate the diversity of our state and open the hearts and minds of our neighbors to those of us who have different opinions and worldviews. It can, and will, happen using the humanities. We just need to be sure the door feels “open” to everyone, not just the so-called elites.

There is more than enough disrespect, fear, and ignorance on all sides of our many divides. The humanities don’t ask that we let go of our values or our capacity for judgment. They ask that we examine them, and those of others. They ask that we be open to learning and humble enough to revise what we thought we knew. I am open to doing that this coming year. Are you?

Shannon D. Smith is the sixth Executive Director of Wyoming Humanities ( She is a historian and author who writes about women in Wyoming and the Frontier West.