Together, We Can Protect the National Endowment for the Humanities

01/24/2017 06:41 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2017

The day before the inauguration, we awoke to an article in The Hill reporting that the Trump administration is preparing to call for the complete elimination of funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Prior to this report, we had been given no indication of the incoming administration’s intentions toward the cultural agencies and had been hopeful that the Trump administration would see the value of the NEH and the NEA just as all recent presidential administrations—Republican and Democratic—have. For many, Thursday’s story was a wrenching return to memories of previous attempts to eliminate funding for the agencies during the 1980s and 1990s.

Should we worry?

It is not surprising that this proposal would surface. Calls to eliminate the agencies have been circulating at think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute, for quite a few years and may have influenced the perspective of some within the new administration. And, while Congress has ultimately supported the cultural agencies, in each of the last four years the House of Representatives Budget Committee has called for the elimination of both the NEA and the NEH in its yearly Budget Resolution.

In the face of challenges to the NEH, citizens who value humanities programs have rallied to build support on Capitol Hill. By talking with their elected representatives about the value of the NEH to districts and states, humanities advocates have helped to ensure that proposals to eliminate or weaken the NEH have not gained traction. And, as a result of these efforts, support in Congress has actually strengthened, resulting in modest funding increases in the past two years.

At this point, the Trump administration has issued no formal budget request and it is unlikely to do so until the spring. When Trump delivers his request, our attention will turn to Congress, which ultimately plays the dominant role in funding decisions. Both the Senate and House appropriations committees will draft and approve their own bills before they are voted on by the full House and the full Senate and differences are negotiated. If the experience of recent years is a guide, this process is likely to take many months.

The National Humanities Alliance (NHA) is very concerned about this potential threat from the new administration. But given successful efforts to gain support for humanities funding in the past and the time available to mobilize allies, we remain optimistic about the NEH’s future. We have been encouraged by the bipartisan support Members of Congress have demonstrated for the NEH; we count a growing number of Republican and Democratic allies in Congress who do not believe that humanities funding is, or should be, a partisan issue. As the federal entity with a national mandate to support humanities research, teaching, programming, and preservation, the NEH has had a compelling impact in every Congressional district.

What is at stake if we lose the NEH?

Our optimism about the NEH’s future rests fundamentally on our confidence in the value of the research, teaching, programming, and preservation the NEH supports. The future of the many initiatives the NEH funds—illustrated below by just a few examples—is at stake.

The NEH supports critical humanities initiatives that serve America’s veterans. The Standing Together Initiative funds reading groups that help veterans process their experiences of war through discussions about relevant literature, writing programs for veterans suffering from PTSD, and much more. The Warrior Scholar Project, for which NEH provided critical early funding, assists veterans in transitioning from the military to college. This “humanities boot camp” engages participants with themes of war, service, and the values held in common in our democracy, while it equips them with skills to succeed in college.

NEH grants support programs that provide educational opportunities for students of all ages. The NEH helped launch the Clemente Course in the Humanities, a program that provides tuition-free, college-level humanities courses for disadvantaged, adult students with incomes at or below 150 percent of the poverty level. Clemente Courses in cities across the country have successfully provided a ramp to college enrollment and completion for thousands of students. Prime Time Family Reading programs build literacy through family reading and discussion groups, resulting in increased reading at home and achievement in school. Each year the National History Day Contest cultivates a love of history in hundreds of thousands of middle and high school students through regional and national historical research and presentation competitions.

The NEH safeguards our historical and cultural legacies. In collaboration with the Library of Congress, the NEH supports the Chronicling America program, which is creating an online, searchable database of newspapers published between 1690 and 1963 from all the states, and U.S. territories, which serves as a resource for students, teachers, and researchers. Small grants are also distributed to preserve cultural artifacts, including textiles, moving images, sound recordings, and architectural and cartographic records from small towns around the country. In addition, NEH grants have allowed scholars to produce volumes of Dakota Sioux and Yup’ik historical narratives as well as volumes of the papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, Andrew Jackson, George C. Marshall, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Jacobs, and Albert Einstein, to name just a few.

NEH grants to museums and historic sites serve local communities and cultivate cultural tourism around the country. The NEH supports many exhibitions including a major exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Manifold Greatness, an exhibition on the origins and influences of the King James Bible that traveled to forty sites. Many of the museums and historic sites funded by the NEH attract significant tourist revenue, creating jobs in communities throughout the country. For example, a grant to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum for the exhibition Forgotten Gateway: Coming to America Through Galveston Island attracted 1.5 million visitors in four cities. In Austin, where the exhibition opened, 46% of the museum’s visitors were from out of town. When the exhibition traveled to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, approximately 95% of the people who toured the exhibition were from out of town.

What can those who value the humanities do?

It is a critical moment for elected officials to hear about the impact of NEH grants. Over the coming weeks, constituents will need to talk with their elected officials about the role the NEH plays in their respective communities. Don’t wait! Visit your elected officials locally or call them. Use NHA’s action alert to send messages. In addition, we invite you to join us in Washington, D.C. in March for Humanities Advocacy Day.

NHA believes this battle can be won, but it can only be won through the assertive advocacy efforts of those who care about the vitality of humanities research, education, programming, and preservation.

The National Humanities Alliance (NHA) is a coalition of scholarly societies, higher education institutions, museums, research centers, libraries, historical societies, and state humanities councils. NHA advocates for the public value of the humanities and federal funding for humanities research, education, programming, and preservation and access. (nhalliance.org)

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