Why We Must Save the National Endowment for the Humanities

Tyrants fear the humanities. We do not, and must not. The NEH has supported vitally important intellectual work, and we have to keep it going.


Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

Does it matter if the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is on the congressional cutting block even though it is a small agency costing on a per capita annual basis less than a postage stamp?

There is an American political consensus that the federal government has a responsible role to play in scientific research. A deep understanding exists that scientific inquiry has led to technological and health care advances that have lengthened and improved life. However, science has a flip side. At the same time that the life span of man has been increased, the vulnerability of mankind has grown. As Einstein so profoundly noted, splitting the atom has changed everything except our way of thinking.

On the assumption that it is easier for scientists to understand dark matter than for public officials to comprehend the dark motives that haunt potential adversaries and may even lurk within, it is an insufficient national security policy to depend on research in laboratories alone. The research that stems from libraries and other repositories of the wisdom of the ages must not be abandoned.

Half a century ago the National Endowment for the Humanities was established on the assumption that world leadership could not solely be based on superior power, wealth, and technology, but must also be premised upon worldwide respect for our country’s qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit.

Like its scientific counterparts (the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health), the NEH was established as a depoliticized research institution. Decisions on research grants were designed to be made by bringing together academic experts in various disciplines to “peer review” applications for federal research assistance in fields ranging from history, literature, and philosophy to related disciplines like comparative religion and foreign languages.

The result has been the facilitation of over 7,500 books, dozens of which have been awarded Bancroft and Pulitzer prizes. Likewise, the agency has supported the digitization of the papers of figures from George Washington to Albert Einstein. It has helped fund hundreds of documentaries like Ken Burns’s series on the Civil War. In addition, the 56 NEH-affiliated state and territorial humanities councils annually put on more than 50,000 educational programs, all selected by individuals in decentralized jurisdictions to respond to local interests. Through book, film, and programmatic outreach, millions of citizens on a yearly basis have been uplifted by the work of this unique government agency.

Wherever we may be as individuals trying to make sense of our own odysseys through life, we are affected by global events and what has become a global hiring hall. An increasing number of things are beyond our control. Care, however, must be taken to recognize that one of the myths of our times is that the humanities are impractical, unrelated to jobs and a work environment. Actually, they are not only practical but central to long-term American competitiveness.

To understand and compete in a world economy we need relevant knowledge of peoples near and far and the imaginative capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of others.

Change and its acceleration characterize the times. With each passing year, jobs evolve. Training for one skill set may be of little assistance for another. On the other hand, studies that stimulate the imagination and nourish capacities to analyze and think outside the box suit well the challenges that change brings us. They make coping with the unprecedented a manageable endeavor.

What better way is there to apply perspective to our times than to study history of prior times? What better way is there to learn to write well than to read great literature? What better way is there to think critically and understand American traditions than to ponder Locke and Montesquieu and the influence of the European Enlightenment on our constitutional processes? The insights provided by humanities disciplines and the judgmental capacity to analyze, correlate, and express our thoughts developed in humanities studies are not dismissible options for society. They are essential to revitalizing the American productive engine.

Even more significant than issues of commerce are the challenges of citizenship and public leadership when for the first time in history weapons of mass destruction have been proliferated and terrorism has been globalized. The health of nations is directly related to the depth of knowledge applied to public decision-making. Thinking from the gut is costly.

For instance, despite having gone to war in the Persian Gulf a decade earlier, Congress and executive branch policy-makers understood little of the Sunni/Shi’a divide when 9/11 hit. Similarly, despite the French experience in Algeria and the British and Russian in Afghanistan, we had little comprehension of the depth of Islamic antipathy to foreign intervention. Nor, despite the tactics of a Daniel Boone-style patriot named Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” who attacked British garrisons at night during the Revolutionary War and then vanished in South Carolina swamps during the day, we had little comprehension of the effectiveness of asymmetric warfare.

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Every American senses that something is askew in our political system. Our judgment is under attack from traditional allies as well as international rivals. Instead of standing forthrightly up for old-fashioned American values—a Lockean respect for individual rights and a Burkean reverence for established social structures—we seem to be lashing out, accentuating domestic ruptures and escalating rather than alleviating international tensions. As a result an increasing number of people on the planet seem to think that America has lost its historical grip. We seem not only to be unschooled in foreign cultures but prone to misunderstand our own heritage.

The conclusion is self-evident. Just as we need to rebuild an infrastructure of roads and bridges, we need to strengthen our infrastructure of ideas.

Tyrants have good reason to fear the humanities. We do not. The humanities are America’s stock and trade. They are a national asset that we shortchange at our peril.

A former congressman and chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Jim Leach is a visiting professor of law at the University of Iowa.