The Humanities and the NEH

In podcast interview, James A. Leach, the endowment's new chair, discusses his priorities -- including more attention to understanding world cultures.
September 2, 2009

WASHINGTON -- The National Endowment for the Humanities doesn't need "radical change," but may see some subtle shifts in emphasis, according to James A. Leach, the new chairman, who discussed his plans with Inside Higher Ed in this podcast interview.

Leach stressed the importance of the humanities as "bringing perspective to living," and cited the lack of perspective in so many contentious political debates these days, when partisans throw around political insults like "fascist" and "socialist" without knowing what the words mean. Leach urged humanities professors to share their expertise more broadly -- not just with their colleagues, but with the public.

To promote that idea, Leach said he would be starting a "bridging cultures" effort in the endowment, in which some grants in the various existing divisions would be devoted to research and public programs that help Americans better understand the rest of the world. In an era of "globalism," he said, it is dangerous for Americans to have so little understanding of cultures and ideas outside of their own. And that is but one of the "imperfect dimensions of our own culture" that he said he would like to see the humanities address.

Leach frequently talks about the issue of perspective, citing the power of The Alexandria Quartet, a series of novels by Lawrence Durrell in which the same period of time is explored from the perspectives of different characters.

This is an ideal time to lead the NEH, he said, because in President Obama and others, we have "the most instinctive national humanities leadership than at any time since Lincoln." While President Obama doesn't use the word "humanities" much, Leach said, the ideas of the humanities infuse his speeches. He cited as an example the president's June talk in Cairo, both analyzing the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world and suggesting ways that relationship could change. "That was all about the humanities," Leach said.

Leach served in Congress for 30 years, representing an Iowa district as a Republican.

Among other topics he discussed:

  • The importance of promoting public access to government records. He said that declassification systems shouldn't be used to delay the work of scholars, and that fewer documents should be classified in the first place.
  • Peer review should be treated as an "absolute hallowed aspect" of the endowment, without interference -- interference, for instance, in the form of earmarked grants from lawmakers.
  • In discussions of digitization of scholarship and the push to require free online access to such work that receives federal support, Leach said he understands the importance of copyright, but that he leans "toward open access" and wants "maximum availability" of scholarship.
  • He views one of the great strengths of American higher education as its "decentralized greatness," in that many public universities have departments that rival the excellence of those at top privates.
  • Befitting an Iowa City resident, Leach said that he loves college towns.


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