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Defender of the Humanities

Defender of the Humanities
June 4, 2009

The National Endowment for the Humanities has seen plenty of the culture wars over the years. William J. Bennett and Lynne V. Cheney used the position to blast academics. Just last month, Leon Kass used the platform of the Jefferson Lecture (the highest humanities honor the NEH bestows; Kass was selected for 2009 by the outgoing Bush administration's NEH chair) to question the direction of humanities research.

Get ready for a change in tone. James A. Leach was officially nominated by President Obama Wednesday to serve as NEH chairman. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed Wednesday, Leach had this to say when asked about the culture warriors of past humanities endowments: "I believe in standing up for culture, rather than warring on culture."

In the interview, Leach said that the humanities are as important as ever and that he hoped to bolster public understanding and support for such work. He pledged to support the peer review process (something critics have said was lacking under Republican administrations), to look for ways to support humanities scholars and institutions, and to find ways to use the NEH to promote important public discussions. "The NEH is more than the sum total of its grants," he said.

He also said he hoped to use his political ties -- he served in Congress for 30 years, as a Republican from Iowa -- to build bipartisan support for the humanities. Leach's selection has been rumored for several weeks, and Wednesday's announcement brought immediate praise from groups such as the National Humanities Alliance and the Association of American Universities.

Leach said that the state of the economy and the world makes the work of humanities scholars both more vital and more difficult. "The irony is that the state of the humanities is undergoing challenges at the moment that the humanities are most needed," he said. "I would hope that the endowment could stand up for the humanities. Its size is not of the nature that it could solve all problems for the humanities, but it can play a role and stand up for the humanities in the strongest possible way."

Part of standing up for the humanities, he said, is asserting that scholars play an important role in society. "I know there are those who think the humanities ought not be a federal priority or other things should be given greater priorities," he said. "All I can say is that the concerns of the assembly line worker have to be addressed, but so must we pay attention to the concerns of a historian or a philosopher. One makes things, the other provides perspective on the making."

While Leach didn't get too detailed about his plans for the NEH, he did touch on some issues that have come up at the endowment:

  • Study of America vs. other cultures. He said it's not an either/or in his view of the NEH. "The endowment has always been about reflecting the values that we come to think of as rather unique to American civilization," he said. "But it's also about trying to understand other civilizations."
  • Peer review. Critics have suggested over the years that the humanities endowment was sometimes "flagging" grant proposals seen as controversial so that higher-ups at the agency might reverse the decisions of peer review panels. Leach said that he couldn't promise he would never ask questions about any grant, but that his inclinations are to let peer review panels decide on grants. He noted that during his career in the House of Representatives, there were several times when he took the House floor to defend peer review at the National Institutes of Health when other lawmakers were questioning grants. "I respect peer review and will go out of my way to respect peer review," he said.
  • Digital work. The NEH under Bruce Cole, President George W. Bush's chairman, stressed programs that support the digitization of collections. Leach called those efforts "important and impressive."

Asked about his personal areas of interest in the humanities, Leach noted that his wife, Deba, is a curator and art historian and writer, and her career has drawn him to art history.

And as a politician for many years, Leach said he has a strong interest in (and some concerns about) political rhetoric and the lost meaning of political words.

"One of my concerns relates to the vocabulary of American politics," he said. "It's important for Americans to think through some of the terms thrown about willy-nilly in American society -- terms like 'fascism' and 'communism' and 'socialism,' as applied to political leaders." He said that he has been "shocked by the nonchalance" with which some politicians have used the term "secession" of late.

Based on his experience, he said he is well aware of the "difficulties in American politics as reflect in Congress." But Leach said he believes there can be bipartisan support for the humanities and for the endowment. He said he is proud to have been a co-founder of the Congressional Humanities Caucus, which has members from both parties.

"I think we have a unique president and a unique time and he clearly wants to reach out to all elements of American society. I have a very great respect for the traditions of American conservatism, and a very deep respect for the traditions of American liberalism, and I think the challenges are to bring a sense of togetherness in which society can better understand the differences as well as the similarities in these great traditions"

 

 

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