The National Endowment for the Humanities: Caught in the collision of politics and budgetary restraint

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As James Leach, chair of NEH, has pointed out, “With annual spending that is 1/21,000th of the federal budget, barely more per capita than the cost of a postage stamp, NEH has made major contributions to the democratization of ideas, providing broad and equal access to advances in knowledge and to the nation’s rich cultural heritage...”

Far from “frills,” the programs funded by NEH are essential to preparing students to adapt to rapidly changing workplaces where careful reading, effective writing, critical and creative thinking, and the capacity to adapt are more important than narrow technical skills, essential for businesses to survive and thrive in international markets, and to our national security. Perhaps most important, the humanities are the cornerstone of understanding what it means to be fully human – an understanding that we ignore at our peril.

America’s recent experiences in trying to “win the hearts and minds” of friends and foes around the world have brought home the dire consequences of failing to appreciate cultures different from our own. Similarly, businesses are unlikely to make their way in the global marketplace unless they understand the values and traditions, not to mention the language, of potential customers.

With their focus on history, culture, literature, language and other relevant areas of study, the humanities address all these issues in direct and positive ways, while also providing important, if less easily quantified, insights about the human condition.   

The business of humanists and creative artists, as the late literary and cultural critic John Leonard wrote, “is to surprise us. If we could imagine what they will do next, we wouldn’t need them, and we do... [T]hey are … storm birds, early warning systems on the seismic fault lines of our culture.”
NEH helps bring the humanities to people across the U.S., including those in underserved rural areas, through radio and TV, traveling exhibits, online digital resources, and programs offered by state humanities councils. And by joining with state and local partners to leverage its own investment, NEH stretches federal dollars. NEH challenge grants made in FY 2011, for example, are expected to generate $37 million in non-federal support by FY 2015. In addition, projects funded by NEH are of extraordinarily high quality since the endowment receives far more applications for projects than it can fund each year—funding only 16 percent of the applications it received in FY 2011.

Because NEH is an important source of funding for colleges and universities, K-12 education, libraries, museums, historical societies and other community endeavors—and because NEH support makes it easier to secure funding from other sources—reductions in the NEH budget can have an impact far beyond the actual federal dollars lost, an impact measured in lost jobs, lost services, and discontinued programs that make for vibrant local communities.
Many of us were heartened when the President’s budget for FY 2013 included $154.3 million for NEH, which, while still far lower than optimal, would restore funding almost to its FY 2011 level. However, the House Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies spending bill, as approved by the House Appropriations Subcommittee last month, provides only $132 million for NEH––$14 million less than the current level and $22.3 million below the President’s FY 2013 budget request.

I urge Congress to support the administration’s budget request for NEH and to resist further attempts to reduce critically important support for the humanities in the federal budget. For the per capita cost of a postage stamp, federal investment in the humanities is money well spent. At that price, our nation's ability to understand and to interact throughout the global society we live and work in should not be the innocent victim of our domestic politics, however well intended.

Skorton is president of Cornell University.