Wyoming is at an unavoidable crossroads. Due to the collapse of mineral revenues, our future will not be anything like our past. Coal mining was once part of Wyoming’s identity, but this phase of our history is quickly coming to a close. In 2020, betting on coal remaining the future of energy is like betting that horses would remain the future of transportation in 1920. Since the peak of coal production over a decade ago, annual state revenues from the shiny black rock have dropped $770 million. The state of Wyoming is expected to have a $1.5 billion budget shortfall in the next two years. Governor Gordon is ordering a 20% cut to all state agencies, which will severely impact programs for children and the elderly, veterans, education and health services.
Hence, we are not only at an economic crossroads, but at a profound cultural crossroads. What kind of state do we want Wyoming to become? What kind of Wyoming do we want for our children and grandchildren? In the coming years Wyoming will be required to reimagine itself right down to its roots, a process that will necessitate self-reflection and a clear, accurate understanding of history. It is not possible to know where you are, let alone where you are going, if you don’t know where you’ve been. This is where humanities can help.
The humanities — language, literature, theater, music, art, dance, history, philosophy — all explore and express the nature of human nature. The humanities teach us how to think critically about complex problems — how to distinguish between the anecdotal and the statistical, the myth and the reality. For example, we here in Wyoming think of ourselves as the “Cowboy State,” but in truth, according to U.S. Bureau of Economic analysis, less than 3% of our workforce is employed in ranching and farming. Beef2Live.com reports that there are more cattle in Florida, and thus more cowboys, than in Wyoming. The biggest employer in the state, by far, is the state government itself — teachers, administrators, state agency workers.
The humanities help us understand each other, value diverse perspectives and promote tolerance, which stand at the center of social justice and equality. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 10% of Wyomingites live in poverty. Despite the fact that we have one of the lowest tax burdens of any state (Wyoming has the lowest beer tax in the nation), the bottom 20% of Wyoming workers pay seven times the rate of the top 1%. A 2018 report by the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy reveals that Wyoming has one of the largest tax rate discrepancies between the rich and the poor in the United States. Finding solutions to entrenched inequalities will require open-mindedness and creativity, precisely the skills that the humanities bring to problem-solving.
The economic inequities and harsh realities that Wyoming is facing today provide a unique opportunity to explore and encourage the true wealth of this state — the intellectual, cultural, social and civic wealth that exists in every community from Bondurant to Buffalo, Sundance to Saratoga. All Wyoming communities have their own proud heritage, committed citizens and singular sense of place. There is no doubt that the people of Wyoming love this state and are willing to do what it takes to make it a better place to live.
At this time, when democracy itself can sometimes feel imperiled, the humanities help develop informed, insightful citizens willing to engage in the civil discourse and elect solid, thoughtful leaders. “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day,” said Thomas Jefferson.
Wyoming is at a grand societal crossroads and needs the humanities to make the right choices. There are great challenges ahead, but also great opportunities. The humanities can help us navigate this new, beautiful future.
Mark Jenkins is the Resident Scholar for Wyoming Humanities.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!