Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation creating the National Endowment for the Humanities and its sister-organization, the National Endowment for the Arts.  It was not fast-tracked legislation, rather it was the result of a determined effort by Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) and his allies in the House and Senate.  In a day and age of political paralysis, sequester, and government shutdowns, when many Americans question whether government can ever accomplish anything, it’s useful to revisit the process Pell used to pass the legislation into law. 

Pell began, simply, with the idea that the U.S. government should support both the arts and the humanities in this country.  Then, using the convening power of the Senate, he assembled the most important, leading voices on the issue.  Over two weeks of testimony in February of 1965, Pell brought scholars and artists before his subcommittee. University presidents, like Barnaby Keeney of Brown University, and union leaders followed, as did administration officials and other members of the Senate. 

ADVERTISEMENT

He gave these experts and stakeholders a platform from which to be heard, and then he did something radical. 

He listened.   

Pell did not begin with a ten-point plan and a speech.  There was no org-chart hidden away with authorities established and structures determined.   

He listened and he worked to accommodate the concerns he was hearing. 

He did not draw lines in the sand.  He did not posture.   

He listened. 

He did not pre-judge any of the big issues facing his subcommittee.  For example, he did not begin with a conviction about whether the arts were part of the humanities.   

He listened to the people who cared passionately on both sides of that debate. 

He did not begin with a firm view of whether the new foundation should be independent or part of an existing federal agency.   

He listened. 

In the end, Pell earned truly bipartisan support for the legislation.  Democrats with names that resonate still today supported the bill: Bayh, Dodd, Kennedy, McGovern, Mondale, and Muskie.  But there were others, too, who voted for the legislation: Republicans like George Murphy of California, Jacob Javits, John Tower and even Barry Goldwater.   

Why?  There’s no single answer.  But there is one common answer:  because Claiborne Pell listened. 

Time and again, whenever the legislation seemed to be in trouble, Pell and his staff—especially Livingston Biddle who played such an important role and would later become chair of the National Endowment for the Arts—showed a remarkable ability to listen, to understand what was important to others, and to accommodate those priorities in the legislation. 

Listening and accommodating were the twin elements of Pell’s approach to creating legislation.  This was not sausage being made, as the old adage goes. It was a master’s class on legislating.  It’s a lesson lost on too many of today’s members of the House and Senate.  

The National Endowment for the Humanities, fifty years on, has made our democracy healthier, our scholarship richer, and our public dialogue more reflective.  Through the creation of the state humanities councils, also driven by Pell who listened and heard a need for the humanities to reach local communities, the National Endowment for the Humanities has a direct and immediate impact, ensuring widespread access to history, heritage, and civic engagement. This is the legacy of a legislator and an approach to legislating that prized listening over winning.  That’s how you create institutions that, half-a-century later, remain true to their original mission.  It’s how you get things done in Washington.  It’s a lesson we’d be well served to remember.   

In a broader sense, the public’s engagement with the humanities supports listening, critical thinking, and reflective dialogue by all of us.  These skills are essential for informed consent in a democracy.   As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the NEH, we affirm the importance of public support for the humanities to create a political community where we listen and accommodate to solve the great issues of our time, just as Senator Pell did 50 years ago. 

Francis is the executive director of the RI Council for the Humanities.  Ludes is vice president for Public Research and Initiatives as well as executive director of the Pell Center at Salve Regina University.  The views expressed here are their own.