WASHINGTON -- Humanities research and cross-cultural understanding play a direct role in keeping America safe and preventing future wars, argued a panel of humanities researchers and supporters at a congressional briefing Thursday.
Panelists at the briefing, which was sponsored by the National Humanities Alliance  and the Association of American Universities , explained how research projects funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities  helped foster a better understanding of foreign cultures -- particularly in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran -- and how that knowledge has assisted U.S. military, aid, and diplomatic efforts in those countries.
"To understand what's on the surface, it is necessary to know what is below the surface, and that is often the history and culture of a region," said Jim Leach, chairman of the NEH and former U.S. representative from Iowa.
The briefing came at a time when humanities scholars are having to reassert themselves  and justify their value , both in the U.S. and abroad , in the face of a larger push for colleges to focus on programs that lead more directly to jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math.
While the House of Representatives is not in session this week, the briefing brought an audience of about 60 congressional staffers and representatives from higher education associations.
Part of the briefing's goal is to garner support for the NEH, which provides grants for humanities research and supports local programs through state humanities councils. Like many other federal agencies, the endowment is facing significant cuts as Congress grapples with decreasing federal spending. The endowment has often been targeted because it is an easy place to cut and because many people do not understand the payout of investing in humanities, panelists said.
Congress cut the endowment's budget for the current fiscal year to about $155 million. In the president's proposed budget for fiscal year 2012, the endowment would take a further cut, down to $146 million.
Cornell University's president, David Skorton, who moderated the panel and has made a very public push to secure greater public support for the humanities , said he would like for individuals to call for an increase in funding for the NEH this year to $167.5 million, what the endowment received in 2010. But he noted that number "would still fall far short of what we ought to be budgeting." The endowment's budget is a drop in the bucket compared to the budget for the National Institutes of Health, which has a proposed budget of $32 billion for fiscal year 2012. "The funding we allocate to the humanities has never come close to the value it adds to our lives and the life of our country," he said.
The panelists touted projects that cataloged Iranian civilization  or Chinese historical figures , studied the history of uranium production in Africa, explored Arab demographic trends , and preserved newspapers from across Latin America, as examples of NEH research that deepened America's understanding of other countries with which it regularly engages. Jacob Shapiro, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, discussed his own work on the links between U.S. aid and religious teaching on violent activity in Arab countries, studies that have helped inform military policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Humanities research does not always line up with national policy goals so perfectly, and the panelists acknowledged that the NEH can fund projects that don't seem to relate to national objectives. But such projects could have broad ramifications when national policy goals change, the panelists argued.
Jamsheed Choksy, a professor of Central Eurasian studies at Indiana University at Bloomington, studies a range of issues involving the culture of Asian countries, and his work took on new prominence after 9/11. He relayed the story of Craig Davis, a graduate student who studied under him. When Jarvis went to Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1999 and 2000 to study elementary education, his research seemed of little import to policymakers. But his 2002 article "'A' is for Allah, 'J' is for Jihad ," which documented political propaganda in elementary school textbooks, helped define how the U.S. military and diplomatic efforts in the Middle East interacted with local populations.
In their opening remarks, Skorton and Leach both discussed how important the humanities and liberal arts education are for goals outside of national security. Belief in the value of compromise or the importance of showing respect for others' opinions, which they said are less prevalent in Congress and national politics now than in the past, are all strengthened by study of the humanities and liberal arts, they argued.
"There has never been a time when humanities were more important to the life of the country or the security of the country," Skorton said.