TWAIN-L Archives

Mark Twain Forum


Options: Use Forum View

Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
"Everett C. Albers" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 23 Jan 1995 15:13:32 -0800
text/plain (322 lines)
Ten Good Reasons to Continue
(in fact to increase!) Funding
for the
National Endowment for the Humanities
A number of innocent federal agencies are being caught in the
groundswell of the conservative "revolution" of the 1994 Congressional
elections. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Information and
Museum Service, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National
Endowment for the Humanities are on the brink of extinction as
conservative politicians try to reduce government spending and taxes,
and punish agencies they have come to associate with elitism, leftist
cultural politics, and the "welfare state." Each of these modest
agencies deserves to survive. They do fine work at a very small price
to the taxpayer. They represent some of the most admirable creativity
of American civilization.
I know a fair amount about the work of each of these agencies, but
since I have spent almost twenty years in the public humanities sector,
I will confine my defense to the NEH. Why should the National Endowment
for the Humanities, with its $177 million budget, survive? Here are
ten good reasons.
1. The NEH and its state affiliates fund good projects. The
NEH is not a bureaucratic abstraction or a hotbed of "secular
humanism," but rather a modest agency that gives grants to worthy
humanities projects throughout the United States. People who have
never heard of the NEH have probably encountered projects that the
agency has funded: Ken Burns' outstanding film series on the
_Civil War_ and _Baseball_; the elegant _Library of America_ publishing
project, featuring the works of such American writers as Willa Cather
and Benjamin Franklin; national museum exhibits on the Bill of Rights,
the world of Columbus, American Indian cultures, Seeds of Change, etc.;
first-person historical impersonations (Chautauqua) of such figures as
Thomas Jefferson, Louisa May Alcott, Herman Melville, and Abigail
Adams; the award-winning documentary films _Northern Lights_ (about
agrarian discontent in North Dakota in 1917) and _Heartland_ (about a
woman homesteader in Wyoming). Most of what the NEH funds has received
acclaim from the general public as well as the academic community. Some
of its projects have been merely thoughtful and competent. Only a
handful of projects in its thirty-year history can be said to have been
failures. Unlike its sister agency the National Endowment for the Arts,
the NEH has not been involved in serious controversies about the
content of its programs.
2. The NEH and its affiliates provide only a small portion of the
budget of the projects they fund. When the Pentagon funds a tank
or an aircraft carrier it must pay the full amount. But when the NEH
funds a project, it pays only a fraction of the total cost. The
sponsoring group usually must provide a substantial cash match, raise
money from other sources, and provide a range of "in-kind" services
such as free publicity, free use of rental facilities, etc. The NEH
provides seed money for projects that might not be able to pay their
way alone, but which are not solely dependent on tax dollars. The
NEH might fund the first year of a lecture series that goes on to
find other financial support. Ken Burns might not need NEH money today,
but at an earlier stage of his career NEH grants were essential to
survival. By funding one segment of a conference on race relations,
the NEH insures that the humanities are brought to bear on a question
that might otherwise lack a careful historical perspective. Or the
NEH might fund a panel discussion on revenge and justice to follow
a production of Shakespeare's _Hamlet_. In short, the NEH
gets a great deal of bang for its buck.
3. We need the humanities to help make sense of our lives. We
spend most of our time getting and spending, and scurrying around
to fulfill our responsibilities as parents, workers, and citizens.
Everyone, irrespective of educational background, is perplexed by
life much of the time. The humanities, with their emphasis on history,
literature, jurisprudence, philosophy, and anthropology (what used
to be called the science of man), can help all of us explore the
unresolved questions of our lives. Who has not felt religious doubt,
jealousy, anger, intense loneliness, a sense of sin, or wild flights of
fancy? We all have to struggle to understand the impulses of human
nature, but the humanities exist to help us make sense of them. The
Homeric epics can help us explore anger, war, monogamy, and sense of
place. Shakespeare's _Othello_ can help us make sense of jealousy.
Goethe and Wordsworth bring understanding to loneliness, a sense of
inarticulate sorrow, a nostalgic longing for nature. Thomas Jefferson's
letters teach us about the inevitable problems of democracy. Thoreau
helps us make sense of the feeling of helplessness that accompanies
our work lives. Unlike the sciences, the humanities do not provide
tight logical answers to life's questions. They explore something
as vague but compelling as the human condition. They ruminate about
the concerns we feel between midnight and four a.m. It is possible,
of course, to live one's life without the humanities. But virtually
no one who has encountered the humanities has been sorry for the
4. The humanities are an alternative to _presentism_ and naive
historical judgement. One of the characteristics of our time is
a propensity to judge the past according to our own standards of
enlightenment. Thus Thomas Jefferson's vision of a democratic nation is
denounced because he was also the owner of African-American slaves. The
intense religious feelings that carried Columbus to the New World and
influenced his responses to the native peoples he encountered are
dismissed as superstition masking for naked imperialism and genocide.
The Constitution of the United States is rebuked for its failure to
enfranchise women and African-American. The railroads are condemned as
the symbol of the evil of manifest destiny.
The humanities are a form of intellectual discipline as well as a set
of academic vocations. The humanities insist that history be understood
in a broad context, that the voices of the past be seen in all of their
complexity, not excerpted for use in a moral argument or a sound-bite.
The humanities examine the human condition, warts and all. Their goal
is not to judge but to understand, not simply to deplore racism or the
urge to war, but to try to understand what it is about the nature of
humanity or the types of civilizations we have produced that has led to
human misunderstanding, not to moralize about what the psychologist
Jung called the "shadow," but to explore the shadow thoughtfully,
soberly, unblinkingly, and with a generosity of spirit. In an age when
much discourse has been reduced to verbal brickbats on Geraldo, the
humanities continue to insist on reflection, dispassionateness,
intellectual fairness. We need the humanities as a counter-balance
to the violent hasty judgments of our time.
5. People are hungry for the humanities even if they don't
use that term. Most of us are bewildered by what appears to be
the decline and fragmentation of American civilization at the end
of the twentieth century. Many of us feel the country seems to be
coming apart. Most of us feel that the future is less promising than
the past. We want somehow to restore the nation--its economy, its moral
fiber, its civic institutions--but we don't know how. our current
perplexity has two important causes: more than any other nation we are
ignorant of our past; and we have let our common culture slip away. The
exclusive focus of the humanities is the cultural tradition of our past
and what it has to say about our contemporary lives. People attend
humanities programs in large numbers. They have a great deal on their
minds and they are grateful for the clarifying force of the humanities
and the scholars who have dedicated their lives to historical
understanding. At humanities programs throughout the United States,
average citizens express a desire to slow the pace of our discourse, to
examine things in greater depth, to let history reveal its patterns and
lessons, and to back away from the shallow communications of the
electronic media. The humanities are our best lens on our past and on
the culture we share as a people.
6. The adult, out-of-school, public both needs and wants continuing
education. The old academic joke is that education is wasted on
the young. In a sense this has never been more true. The American
educational system, by almost any measure, is in crisis. Young people
exhibit diminished literacy skills. Few books, even textbooks, are
actually read in the public schools. Most students graduate from high
school without having had a serious encounter with the great texts
of civilization, from Homer and Dante to the Indian _Upanishads_
and the oral tradition of the Navaho. Not infrequently however, these
same citizens become interested in the history of ideas later on in
their lives The NEH (and other cultural agencies) provide lifelong
educational opportunities for all American at an annual cost of less
than one commercial movie per capita. When citizens are ready to take
books and cultural history seriously, the NEH is poised to introduce
them to some of the finest scholars of America, some of the best texts
ever written, and some of the most engaging ideas they have ever
7. The NEH is not a wild invention of the New Deal or the Great
Society. All civilizations sponsor culture. Most culture has always
been a private enterprise, as indeed it is in the United States of
1995. But every civilization finds ways to support its finest cultural
achievement using public funds. In ancient Athens, the first democracy,
the Parthenon was built with public money, even though it was not
a government building. Greek tragedy was so important to the state
that the polis funded the annual dramatic competition, the Festival
of Dionysus, and even provided seats gratis to citizens who could
not afford to pay. Although Rome was much less culturally sophisticated
than Greece, it too provided funding for architecture, for the visual
arts, and for cultural events. The cathedrals of the middle ages were
built in part with public funds. Native American cultures dedicated
tribal and not merely individual resources to dances, feasts, parades,
and art. Today every advanced civilization helps fund the arts and
humanities from the public treasury. German cities subsidize opera,
one of the finest and most expensive of the arts. Britain supports
its stupendous national museum, its world-famous portrait and art
galleries, the Open University (by television, for adults), and of
course the Royal Shakespeare Company, the finest theater company in
the world. Our northern neighbor Canada supports public broadcasting,
a National Film Board, and intensive public subsidies for arts and
humanities programming. The fact is that the arts and humanities have
never been able to pay for themselves. They have always been
funded partly by sales, partly by rich patrons, and partly by the
state, just as they are today in the United States. A movie like
_Batman_ can, of course, pay for itself. It bills itself as
entertainment and makes no pretensions to culture. A film series like
Ken Burns' _Civil War_ cannot pay its way, at least not until Burns had
won humanities grants sufficient to launch his great career. The market
has never been the exclusive judge of cultural viability. There is
nothing unusual or "socialist" about state sponsorship of
some creative activity. It is as old as civilization. Indeed, the
more remarkable the civilization (Greece, Rome, Renaissance Italy,
modern Britain) the more public funding for arts and humanities one
finds in the historical record. America is a great civilization. It
must not neglect its best thought, best art, best writing, best ideas
merely because they cannot all compete with _The Simpsons_.
8. It's a good idea to get scholars away from their ivory
towers. America is a democracy. A democracy cannot permit itself
to fragment into an intelligentsia, splendidly isolated, on the one
hand, and the great mass of citizens who have no contact with academic
ideas, on the other. In a democracy the privileged world of academic
ideas must be mingled with the concerns of the general public, partly
because the public pays taxes which enable the academy to exist, and
more importantly because Thomas Jefferson was surely right to argue
that the foundation of self-government is a liberally educated public.
"Enlighten the people generally," he wrote, "and every form of tyranny,
both of mind and body, will disappear." When scholars go out to meet
the public, they see conditions that are rarely present in the
privileged cloisters of the academy. They also meet the citizens who
pay their salaries. This can only be beneficial. The NEH and its
affiliates help to break down the town vs. gown misunderstandings
that are not uncommon in less democratic cultures.
9. Humanities scholars teach the public, of course, but they also
learn from the public. Scholars who have participated in NEH-sponsored
programs have reported that their ideas were clarified, criticized,
and brought down to earth by contact with the general public. One
of the best public humanities scholars in America has said, of the
public, "Never overestimate their information or underestimate
their intelligence." This is a superb insight. The people of
the United States are thoughtful, intelligent, and insightful. They
do not often think in academic terms, but they frequently ask questions
that help scholars think more clearly about their work. Their
challenges sharpen the minds of scholars who are used to being indulged
in their classrooms and laboratories. Citizens are also eager to share
their real-world experience, which helps scholars anchor theory in life
as it is actually lived in America. NEH events are rarely one-
directional: knowledge trickling down from the expert to the people.
Most NEH programs involve a genuine and mutually respectful exchange.
The medieval poet Chaucer, in describing the character of his scholar
pilgrim, said, "And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach." This is
the principle that most public humanities scholars carry into their
public programs. They have ideas they wish to communicate beyond the
academic walls. But they also want to learn from the good sense and the
wide range of perspectives of the citizens of the United States. They
come to speak. But they also come to listen.
10. Public humanities programs are an antidote to the malaise of
university humanities departments. Many academic humanists and
many university humanities departments have lost their way. They have
proudly abandoned the celebrated texts of western civilization for
new, neglected, or obscure cultural artifacts.. They prefer critical
theory to the practical work of the humanities. Thus they invoke such
terms as postmodern, deconstruction, new historicism, new Marxism,
eco-feminism, and post-structuralism, rather than provide sensible
readings of admirable texts. Much of the academic humanities community
has become cynical about such ideas as beauty, truth justice, piety,
compassion, democracy, culture, even civilization. They pretend that
all human expression is a power game, and that such concepts as justice
and beauty are the shibboleths of the privileged who are in fact
lackeys for the existing power structure. The old humanities values
such as clear-headedness, fairness, and honest truth-seeking have been
obscured by a highly technical cultural philosophy with an impenetrable
professional jargon. Not all humanities scholars have pursued this
Obscurantist path (which I have of course oversimplified in this brief
survey), and not all universities are characterized by an intellectual
contempt for traditional cultural values. But everyone who has observed
the academy knows that the humanities are less accessible to average
intelligence than ever before, and many responsible students of culture
have concluded that the academic humanities are in disarray.
The existence of the NEH and its state affiliates is a marvelous
antidote to such self-indulgence. A literature scholar may be able to
convince (or silence) an impressionable nineteen-year-old in his or her
own private fiefdom, the university classroom, of the importance of a
postmodernist reading of _Paradise Lost_ or _Laverne and Shirley_, but
he or she will not fare so well with the adult, out-of-school public.
In public humanities programs the scholar has no choice but to speak in
a language actually used by average citizens.. The scholar must either
explain or abandon his or her Continental theories about the nature of
discourse. The public demands good sense and lucid communication. It
will not sit long for jargon, over-wrought theory, or contempt for the
values of average American citizens. In taking ideas to the public the
scholar is disciplined, humbled, even reclaimed for good sense. It is
not, of course, the case that every scholar can communicate every idea
to the general public, any more than that every citizen could
understand special relativity or the nature of black holes. Some ideas
are so complex that only a handful of individuals can understand them
after a lifetime of study. But the very process of trying to make sense
of academic ideas in public settings has a salutary effect on every
humanities scholar. So far from being unnecessary, the public
humanities in America may play a vital role in reclaiming humanities
disciplines from their excesses of theory, politics, and language. This
is exactly what one would expect in a democracy.
Conclusion: These are just a few reasons for saving the National
Endowment for the Humanities and other cultural agencies. We are the
wealthiest, most privileged, and most energetic nation in the history
of the world. We can afford to spend seventy cents per citizen per
year on an agency which does so much good at so little cost and with
so little bureaucracy and political agenda. The NEH is one of the
best things we do with our tax dollars. Of course the NEH can be made
more efficient. It should take its share of across-the-board budget
cuts along with every other federal agency. It should be carefully
supervised so that its grants go to projects which explore our culture
respectfully and not to groups and individuals with extreme political
views on either side of the spectrum. If enlightenment is the
foundation of a democratic people, we ought not to eliminate the NEH
simply because our deficit is huge or because some conservatives are
offended that our taxes are used for something so frivolous as culture.
When the budget is in better balance we should look forward to greatly
increased funding for our cultural agencies. As a nation we ought to
look to the Parthenon and the Vienna opera, to the films of Ken Burns
and the remarkable historical impersonations of Chautauqua, for our
model, not to the moral strictures of the righteous or the novels of
Ayn Rand.
Clay Jenkinson
Reno, Nevada
19 January 1995
[log in to unmask]
Everett C. Albers
ND Humanities Council
2900 Broadway E., Suite 3
PO Box 2191
Bismarck, ND 58502-2191
FAX: 701-223-8724
TELEPHONE: 701-255-3360