Presidential Archives

Humanities: In the National Interest

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for presentation

National Humanities Alliance Annual Membership Meeting and Humanities Advocacy Day
Washington, D.C.
March 7, 2011

Thank you all for coming to our nation’s capital for this annual meeting of the National Humanities Alliance and Humanities Advocacy Day. There has never been a time when the humanities have been more important to our national life. Not since the mid 1990s have they faced such drastic reductions in federal funding. There has never been a more critical time for our advocacy on their behalf. And so, this is the moment for us to unite to make sure that our elected representatives and their constituents understand what is at stake—and why support for the humanities is a wise investment in the future of the U.S.

The fiscal realities facing our nation—and the new mood in Congress, especially in the House—have put a vast array of federal programs in jeopardy, but the humanities more dramatically than most. Most of us in this room, I assume, agree that federal expenditures must go down and that a sustainable budget cannot be achieved without pain—and the setting of priorities. Nonetheless, the humanities are a very small part of the federal budget—and their funding has already been cut by a third in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1994. We recognize as well that the humanities have been a tempting target for those seeking to demonstrate their “seriousness” about reducing the federal budget or those seeking to advance specific social or political agendas.

Our task, it seems to me, is to make an eminently supportable case: yet more funding cuts for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)—and, of course, its elimination—will throw the baby out with the bathwater, with real and far-reaching consequences not only to our understanding of our history, culture, and civic values but also for our economic competitiveness and national security.

As the wide range of organizations represented here today suggests—and as the broad membership of the National Humanities Alliance confirms—work in the humanities cuts a wide swath, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, despite its limited budget, has been important to all of us. As we all know, NEH is the federal agency that funds research on our national history, our cultural heritage, and our civic values. The endowment’s competitive peer review process ensures that the highest quality projects are funded, with demand far outpacing available funds. NEH grants go to every state and territory, reaching rural and underserved areas—especially hard-hit by the recession—through digital educational resources, films, television and radio programming and traveling exhibits. NEH also funds our local museums and libraries and state humanities organizations that support local, community-based programming. More than 2.5 million Americans are engaged in a broad range of humanities professions—K-12 teachers, college and university professors, museum curators, librarians, translators, news analysts and more.

In our advocacy over the next two days and throughout the year, we need to make it clear to our elected leaders that no matter what priorities they and their constituents have for the future of our country, the elimination—or even further deterioration—of the NEH will adversely impact those priorities.

Concerned about national competitiveness?

Two ingredients critical to innovation and competitiveness in the 21st century, I would submit, are investments in education—to fill the talent pipeline—as well as research and development to develop new products, processes, and industries. Of course, these investments are almost entirely in the realm of science and technology, from biomedical research to the physical sciences and engineering. As a physician and scientist, I applaud such investments. But make no mistake: our most pressing and complex problems—worldwide—will not be solved by science alone. As just one example, local cultures and values hugely impact the willingness of people to embrace scientific discoveries, from genetically modified foods to vaccines—and the understanding of these cultures and values is the domain of the humanities and the social sciences.

Course work in the humanistic disciplines is often promoted, legitimately, as a way to teach basic skills of critical—and contextual—thinking, communication, and ethics to scientists, engineers, business people, and those in other applied professions. As they provide a foundation for success in a wide range of careers, they serve as well as a prerequisite for responsible citizenship. The recent—and controversial—book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011), by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, presented a distressing picture of how much (or little) undergraduates are learning in college, but an interesting footnote to the dismal statistics was that “students…majoring in traditional liberal-arts fields…demonstrated significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.” (See It is in the nation’s interest and essential to our global competitiveness to have the up-and-coming generation, from all backgrounds, educated broadly, humanistically, and well.
Do we want our children to have a sound ethical foundation that complements the moral foundation that most parents endeavor to instill? The most wretched nonmonetary consequence of our nation’s economic distress over the past two years, in my view, is an acceleration of our country’s loss of values. Witness, for example, the nastiness of the recent midterm elections, which demonstrated our collective loss of the ability – or even the desire — to understand and respect each other. As James Leach, chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and former U.S. Representative, has said, “The temper and integrity of the political dialogue are more important for the cohesiveness of society than the outcome of any election.”

But lately we seem to have lost our way. To be sure, jobs, regional economic development, and careful control of expenditures in the public and private sectors are keys to a robust recovery. But we got where we are in part through a loss of values, a lack of understanding of the lessons of history and, increasingly, a loss of civility and of the sense of fair play.

As M.H. Abrams, distinguished Cornell professor emeritus, reminded me not long ago, the British author Samuel Johnson got this point exactly right in 1778 in The Life of English Poets: “The truth is, that the knowledge of external nature, and the sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or the frequent business of the human mind…We are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance…Socrates was rather of the opinion that what we had to learn was, how to do good, and avoid evil.”

This is the domain of the humanities, which are at once timeless and timely. Whether we’re discussing the headlines relevant to regulation of financial institutions, cloning, or the appropriate use of new social media, a thoroughgoing understanding of ethics, as provided through humanistic study, is critical.

How about national security—which has many of us in a state of perpetual unease as we watch events unfold on the world stage?
What separates people around the globe – often violently, it seems to me—is poor understanding of the cultures, languages, histories, religions, and values of others. From the “person on the street” in our cities and towns, to the soldiers in Afghanistan, to expats working in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain—our best hope for a secure future is understanding and engagement, not just military strategy and strength. When our generals and diplomats speak of “winning the hearts and minds of the people,” they are talking about understanding the language, culture, religion, and values of people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and elsewhere, endeavors supported by the NEH. That’s why our analysts in the major national intelligence and security agencies are to a great extent humanists and social scientists. In fact, recognizing that there was a shortage of men and women with the expertise the nation needs, the Bush administration established a National Security Language Initiative (with programs in the Departments of Education, State, and Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence) to increase the number of Americans learning such “critical needs languages” as Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, Russian, Chinese, and others. The Minerva Project is another example of the link between the humanities and social sciences and national security. This initiative was launched by the Department of Defense to improve its understanding of the social, cultural, behavioral and political forces that shape regions of the world that have strategic importance to the U.S. The current upheavals in the Middle East have brought the need for such understanding of critical languages and culture to the fore once again.

And lest we forget, NEH is a research agency—which awards competitive grants for research projects and critical analysis in the humanities that are valuable in their own right and on their own terms. Indeed research-related expenditures account for about a third of the NEH budget and are vital to scholarship in our colleges and universities. The events and creations of the past cannot change, but our knowledge of them can be enhanced through rigorous study and research. The impact of the humanities as a critical endeavor is evident in the study of literature, the arts, history, philosophy, law, linguistics, religion, and other humanistic disciplines, which can help us grasp where we come from, and why, in order to lead us into the future.

The funding we allocate to the humanities through our government has never come close to the value the humanities add to individual lives and to the life of our nation. It should be—it must be—unacceptable, to Democrats and Republicans alike, to further reduce that support. Even in times of austerity, especially in times of austerity, sound investments must be made.

I am encouraged that—in response to a bipartisan request from U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and Representatives Tom Petri (R-Wisconsin) and David Price (D-North Carolina)—the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has formed a special Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. Conceived by American Academy President Leslie Berlowitz, this commission is a promising and far reaching development. The commission is chaired by Richard Brodhead, president of Duke University, and John Rowe, chair and chief executive officer of Exelon Corporation. Leslie and Bob Berdahl, Association of American Universities president, will tell you more about this important initiative during lunch.

Most immediately, amidst uncertainty about how the current budget debates will play out, what should we talk about on the Hill during Humanities Advocacy Day? We are a long way from achieving national consensus on what the appropriate funding level might be in FY 2012. The Administration’s proposed FY2012 federal budget reduces funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities to $146 million, down $21.5 million from the $167.5 million enacted for 2010, with comparable reductions for the National Endowment for the Arts. Many other proposals and amendments have been put forward.

At a minimum, though, let’s aim for level funding of NEH at the FY2010 enacted level of $167.5 million. A push for level funding is a realistic approach, based on the level of cuts in the President’s FY2012 budget request and the overall fiscal situation, although it falls far short of the appropriate level of federal support for the humanities through NEH. Despite – and perhaps because of—stark budget realities, we must have the political will and discipline to support the humanities. It’s good for our children, it’s good for our security, it’s good for America.

As we make our Congressional visits during Humanities Advocacy Day, let’s carry the message that NEH should not be a pawn in a partisan conflict. We cannot afford to sacrifice support for the humanities on the altar of financial exigency. Reductions to NEH’s already small budget won’t make a perceptible dent in the federal deficit, but they will damage the agency and reduce tangible benefit to the American people.

And let’s remember that advocacy for the humanities is not the work of a single day or week here in Washington, but something about which we must be vigilant throughout the year. We must continue to make the case for the humanities when next we see our Congressional leaders in our own districts. And we must be sure to thank them when they vote in support of the humanities and express our regret when they act in ways that we believe are detrimental. The stakes are very high and the consequences of the wrong decision dire indeed, not simply for the organizations we represent but for the nation as a whole. If ever there was a time when our advocacy was needed, it is now. I stand with you in these efforts—and I know we are equal to the task.