Think NEH Funding is Only a Federal Issue? Think Again.

BY BRIAN C. MITCHELL

News reports last week that President Trump’s first budget may eliminate support for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has alarmed many of humanities supporters and scholars. But the de-funding of the NEH – or the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) — should alarm every American who has used a library, visited a museum, attended a college or university, watched public television, or listened to a public radio station.

Much of the blueprint for elimination seems to be coming from the conservative Heritage Foundation. These cuts are largely symbolic budget-cutting efforts since last year’s combined funding for the NEH, NEA, and CPB totaled 0.02 percent of the federal budget.

The Washington Post put the amount in context noting, “Put another way, if you make $50,000 a year, spending the equivalent of what the government spends on these three programs would be like spending less than $10.”

The NEH funds programs in areas that include education for school teachers and college faculty, preservation to maintain critical collections of our common American heritage, and public programs that reach large audiences, often through the media. Additionally, the agency funds research of literary and historical significance, challenge grants to improve humanities funding nationally, and work in the digital humanities to link new technology to the humanities.

The core argument to continue support for the NEH is, of course, that humanities enrich personal and civic life. They are the “keepers of the flame” that allow us to remember and celebrate who we are and imagine where we are heading as a nation. It’s a good argument – likely the best argument – but it won’t save the NEH from elimination in the current political climate.

STATE HUMANITIES COUNCILS HAVE BROAD, GRASSROOTS IMPACT

In the upcoming battle, if there is one, perhaps the most important counterpunch will be the role played by federal and state partnerships, represented by the 56 state humanities councils across America.

State humanities councils’ programs impact and change the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. Added into the mix are the large regional and national audiences reached by public programs, including impressive national efforts to promote scholarship and learning. The NEH – in the most practical terms – touches all of us through its programs.

I had the privilege of serving as a program officer for the state humanities programs in the Midwest and Western U.S in the 1980s. Thousands of Americans – overwhelmingly rural in my service region – benefited from innumerable, high quality programs, made possible through NEH support. The most dramatic, in some respects, was Chautauqua.

Organizers modeled the Chautauqua program to replicate an adult education movement in the United States, highly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chautauqua brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and specialists of the day. Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying that Chautauqua was “the most American thing in America.”

I came to Brookings and Pierre in South Dakota unsure and a bit skeptical of what I would find. But what happened during these visits forever changed my perspective of what the humanities does for America.

Our Chautauqua events began with raising a big tent, a distinctly new experience for this Eastern-bred, city-raised, not-especially-handy-with-tools guy. The whole town pitched in to ready the Chautauqua site for a week-long reading and discussion of the works of Thomas Jefferson.

The NEH and its local affiliate provided the books, organized discussion sessions, and rounded up the entertainment. A young Rhodes Scholar, Clay Jenkinson, performing as Jefferson, responded to audience questions as the Founding Father and American icon would have.

Who were the people that jammed into the Chautauqua event each night? They were local residents and farmers who had driven their families 60 miles in some cases to learn more about Thomas Jefferson. It was a transformative moment for them – and for me – defining how I would think, write, and talk about the humanities over the next 30 years.

The Chautauqua movement was a serious, thoughtful, and insightful analysis about our country’s founders. It provides an example of the context for how best to support the NEH.

MAKING THE CASE TO SUPPORT THE HUMANITIES

Constituents in every state – voters, in the eyes of politicians – must make the case for the NEH – and the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — directly. Politicians attempting to eliminate these agencies cannot be allowed to do so because of ideology or as a rounding error correction in an attempt to achieve deficit reduction.

Just as all politics is local, so too is the NEH. The NEH must be argued as a local issue because it supports the quality of life for American voters at home, regionally, and nationally. Its programs, largely mainstream, cannot be passed off as urban, bicoastal, and elitist.

NEH IMPACT IS PERSONAL AND LOCAL

The NEH’s programs impact people locally and personally. Those who support the humanities must not allow our fellow Americans to believe that the issue is just political dickering that doesn’t touch their lives.

For over 50 years, the NEH has encouraged Americans to think more deeply about American society – how it has developed and where it has headed. The NEH isn’t a bureaucratic chit but a statement of who we are as a nation.

Now is the time for library groups, Chautauqua participants, and cowboy poets across America to step forward as benefactors and voters to make the case for what they have learned and, thanks to the NEH, how their lives have been enriched through the humanities.

This article first appeared on the blog of the Edvance Foundation. 

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