Humanities for America

NEH launches initiative to promote research focused on the public good. The effort comes before what may be a contentious budget battle with the new Congress.

January 16, 2015

WASHINGTON -- The head of the National Endowment for the Humanities said Thursday that he wants to push humanities scholarship to become more directly connected to helping address the nation’s contemporary problems.

Making the case for why the nation should continue its longstanding investments in the humanities, NEH Chairman William (Bro) Adams said his agency would be launching an effort to encourage humanities scholars to focus on topics that that are relevant to Americans’ daily lives.

The initiative -- dubbed “The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square” -- will use the agency’s grant making and new projects to emphasize the link between the humanities and public life.

“We’re all aware of recent criticisms that humanists have become too inwardly and professionally focused,” he said in remarks at a National Press Club luncheon. “This initiative will provide encouragement and support to humanities scholars who wish to demonstrate the relevance of their professional interests and skills to American life.”

Adams, a former president of Colby College who was confirmed last summer as the agency’s head, pitched the humanities as a discipline that can address directly the challenges of contemporary life. He cited, for instance, the balancing of security and privacy, understanding the lessons of recent wars, incorporating veterans back into civilian life, and dealing with cultural and political polarization.

Adams, a Vietnam War veteran himself, singled out the role of the humanities in helping veterans returning from the trauma of armed conflict.  

“What I found in the humanities was perspective and meaning,” he said. “Since coming to NEH, I’ve discovered that other, more recent combat veterans have been affected in a similar way through their involvement in NEH-supported veterans’ programs.”

As part of the new Common Good initiative, Adams said, the agency plans  to expand its program that awards grants that connect the humanities to the experience of veterans and other aspects of war.

Another part of the new effort announced Thursday is a new program that will digitize out-of-print books in the humanities. The NEH said that, along with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, it will give grants to publishers to identify "great humanities books" and make them available free online.
Making the Case

Although he did not specifically address the politics of funding the federal humanities agency, Adams’s remarks could be read as a blueprint for how humanities advocates might approach what is likely to be a contentious budget fight this year with the new Republican-controlled Congress.

Scaling back the federal money that flows to the National Endowment for the Humanities -- which this year is about $146 million -- has long been a priority for some Republicans. The budget blueprint proposed last year by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin called for completely eliminating the agency’s funding. And a Republican-controlled House panel last summer sought to cut $8 million from the agency’s appropriation.

Adams said that scholarship in the humanities is as deserving of support as the work being done in science and technological fields.

“We have reasonably invested a great deal of energy and resources in the advancement of STEM  -- in government, in education and in the private sector,” he added. “But as we do so, we must keep the importance of other investments firmly in mind, especially our investment.”

Adams said he did not know what this year’s federal budget debate would portend for humanities funding. But, he said, one key would be arguing for the “public relevance” of the humanities and “how much poorer we would be without them.”


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