Criticism of NEH by Virginia Humanities board member are unfounded
Megan Beyer made false statements and misrepresentations concerning the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and President Trump in her Oct. 6, 2020, The Hill op-ed entitled, “The Root of American Power.” A generous arts patron, Beyer did not acknowledge that she is also the spouse of a Democrat member of Congress running for reelection and has hosted a fundraiser for Joe Biden’s campaign.
Beyer’s efforts to condemn President Trump through her board role with the federally funded Virginia Humanities (VH) is an unfortunate politization of a nonprofit grant maker that historically did not identify itself with any political party. Indeed, for more than 40 years, its former director went to the Virginia General Assembly and found support on both sides of the aisle. Now, that message of unity seems abandoned.
Under the Trump administration, the annual NEH budget has grown from $148 million to $237 million (including CARES Act funding), which has resulted in the largest NEH annual allocations to VH in its history. NEH funding equals more than 20 percent of the VH total operating budget. President Trump has signed NEH appropriation increases totaling nearly $90 million into law. In the eight years of the previous administration, the NEH budget only grew from $145 million to $148 million.
Contrary to Beyer’s statement, President Trump never directed NEH to fund a patriotic educational program or any specific grant application; rather, on Constitution Day, he commended a 2020 NEH grant focused on improving high school U.S. history lesson plans. Speaking in the National Archives rotunda in the presence of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, President Trump said that America is exceptional, and it is.
The NEH grant in question was peer reviewed by independent scholars and career civil servants with doctorates in the humanities and recommended by a National Council that consists of 23 Senate-confirmed experts nominated by Presidents Obama and Trump. It was then approved for funding by me, the longest-serving Senate-confirmed senior staff member in the history of the NEH and NEA.
Education reporters know that the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 15 percent of eighth-grade students performed at or above the proficient level on the U.S. history assessment. Probing the quality and effectiveness of leading educational materials and learning approaches are valid humanities goals that well align with NEH’s founding legislation.
When NPR, the New York Times, and other media outlets asked about the grant, NEH informed them of these facts, and thus, they did not run articles mischaracterizing the agency’s actions.
The 1619 Project, which Beyer praises and announces as supported by VH, falsely stated that the preservation of slavery was one of the primary causes of the American Revolution. It calls our nation a slavocracy, not a democracy. It claims 1619, not 1776, was the year of our founding. Victory at Yorktown was, in this telling, merely a victory for white supremacy.
The 1619 Project includes profound creative works, especially the two poems by Rita Dove and Camille Dungy on the Birmingham church bombing, that illuminate the weight of racism on our nation’s history. But the lead essay and several other works of journalism lack objectivity and are not supported by scholarly research — as historians on the left and the right have explained. Indeed, humanities faculty at Bowdoin College, Brown University, The City University of New York, Hillsdale College, Michigan State University, Northwestern University, The University of Oklahoma, Princeton University, Stanford University, Texas State University, University of California, Santa Cruz, and The University of Virginia —the home base of VH — have heavily criticized it. Pulitzer Prize-winning historians have criticized it. President Trump is not alone in rejecting this ideology.
Beyer also criticized President Trump for closing the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities (PCAH), which she directed during the previous administration. Started by the Reagan administration with positions given to donors and celebrities with the first lady as honorary chair, the advisory committee had fallen so far behind in fundraising by 2017 that NEH had to transfer more than $600,000 to keep PCAH’s doors open. After the PCAH delegation traveled to Cuba, funds were even tighter. NEA had to offer support to PCAH, too.
In 2017, NEH and NEA political appointees and civil servants were united in recommending that PCAH, a White House advisory board with no congressional oversight, needed to be closed because it could not pay its bills. Notably, no congressional hearings were called by either party to protest its closure. NEH used these savings to increase our travel to rural areas, including underserved populations, and to create a paid internship program to remove economic barriers that prevented low-income college and graduate students from moving to Washington, D.C. to work at our agency.
We regret that election-year politics has driven this wedge between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Virginia Humanities leadership. NEH will continue our mission of supporting evidenced-based scholarship and research without bending to undue political influence. We stand by our grants. And as public servants and humanists, we stand with President Lincoln, who called our imperfect Union the “last, best hope of Earth.”
Jon Parrish Peede is the eleventh chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.