Today marks day 33 of the government shutdown. Some 380,00 government employees are furloughed, and an additional 420,000 are required to work without pay, with many of them pressed to find temporary jobs, start GoFundMe pages or hawk their personal possessions. Those hurt by the shutdown include the employees who work for America’s federally funded archives, museums and research centers. Some of our nation’s greatest intellectual resources have their lights off and “We’re sorry … closed” signs posted on their locked entrances. These signs communicate to our citizens and the world that the American mind has been deemed a “nonessential” service and thus closed for business.
The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and most presidential libraries that serve as museums and research archives are closed. The National Science Foundation, Bureau of Economic Analysis, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Geological Survey are closed. NASA’s funding stream for scientific research has been cut off, and the Food and Drug Administration is unable to collect all of its data. Then there is the “collateral damage” of the work of university researchers — some graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck — and private government contractors who draw resources from or do work for these agencies.
These closures are simply the latest episode in the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle the public intellectual infrastructure of our country. In 2018, it sought to eliminate federal funding for the NEA, NEH, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and we have every reason to expect Trump’s administration will try to do it again in 2019. The cost of such attacks on knowledge production and dissemination goes beyond dollars, however. It threatens the very foundation of democratic life that has been central to the founding, and flourishing, of the country.
Our nation’s founders roundly agreed that the free diffusion of knowledge was the key ingredient that distinguished free citizens from imperial subjects. They understood that the work of democratic politics required a collective effort at knowledge production and dissemination. This impulse led John Adams, John Hancock and James Bowdoin to create the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780. It also led Adams, when he became president, to oversee the establishment of the Library of Congress in 1800, which initially aimed to guide legislators in enlightened governance and eventually opened to serve the entire body politic.
This belief transcended political divides. At the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson confessed to Adams, his former rival: “I cannot live without books.” And the new nation couldn’t either, he thought. After the British burned down the U.S. Capitol in 1814, Jefferson sold his personal collections to the Library of Congress to ensure its survival.
Though a passionate bibliophile, Jefferson also believed in the importance of gleaning knowledge from the study of the natural world. He thus commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the lands west of the Mississippi River in 1804. This famous voyage was an early federally funded scientific research expedition, and an indication of how Jefferson and his fellow founders believed that scientific exploration and inquiry opened American’s mental — not just geographical — horizons. He shared James Madison’s sentiment that “the advancement and diffusion of knowledge … is the only guardian of true liberty.”
Almost half a century later, the vital connection between intellectual inquiry and the practice of democratic freedoms led President James Polk to support the founding of the Smithsonian Institution. From its creation in 1846 to today, the Smithsonian has funded and coordinated scientific, humanistic and artistic research programs; facilitated dialogue between professional researchers and the public; and built collections that are storehouses of knowledge as well as sites of democratic exchange. The first secretary of the Smithsonian, scientist Joseph Henry, insisted that “the worth and importance of the Institution is not to be estimated by what it accumulates within the walls of its building, but by what it sends forth to the world.”
Almost a century later, the long-standing commitment to bring knowledge to bear on democracy remained fierce during World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed that “books [were] weapons” in the Allies’ fight against totalitarianism. If Nazis burned books and tried to “put thought in a concentration camp,” then it fell to American democracy to bring books that can liberate the mind into the hands of as many readers as possible. The Office of War Information (OWI), together with the nonprofit Council on Books in Wartime (CBW), thus coordinated to produced English- and foreign-language editions of American books to provide to foreign readers liberated by the Allies.
Roosevelt also tapped engineer Vannevar Bush to head the Office of Scientific Research and Development during the war to expand scientific understanding, seeing it as instrumental for exploring and safeguarding American democracy. In his landmark report “Science — the Endless Frontier” (1945), Bush stressed that scientific research is the “proper concern of Government,” and such a view “is in keeping with the American tradition — one which has made the United States great. . . . Without scientific progress we could not have maintained our liberties against tyranny.” In 1950, such a sentiment was axiomatic, leading Congress to fund the National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent federal agency devoted to scientific research.
And yet, these institutional bulwarks of democracy are now closed. The Smithsonian’s approximately 154 million artifacts, documents and specimens are not being sent “forth to the world,” but are inaccessible to researchers and the public. A particularly troubling closure is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which also has been turned into a sealed vault. As Americans confront growing political divides today, they are being denied access by their own elected officials to the vital sources of their past to understand and navigate inequality and polarization.
And while the NSF’s record of accomplishment has been extraordinary, and its contributions to the U.S. economic leadership, technological prowess, national security and way of life are unmistakable, it too has been deemed “nonessential” in today’s shutdown battle. Now, instead of providing support to researchers in the sciences, the NSF offers an orange “ALERT” message on its website: “Due to a lapse in appropriations, NSF is closed.”
There is no way — nor a reason — to weigh which closure is the most painful for its staff or will have the most deleterious effects on Americans’ well-being and productivity. But the closure of the National Archives is a particularly disturbing symbol of a democratic culture that has lost its way and is sorely cut off from its past. Locked within the archives and out of reach of the nation they helped bring into being are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Perhaps this is fitting, because it is a lack of historical consciousness, a failure to recognize that the dissemination of knowledge is the only safeguard for democracy, that got us into this mess in the first place.