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Excerpts from the Prepared Statement of NEH Chairman James A. Leach before the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

45 Independence Ave SW Washington, DC 20515
United States

March 17, 2010

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Simpson, and Distinguished Members of the Subcommittee:

After thirty years in Congress, I find it awkward to be sitting on the other side of the hearing table. But, I could not be more honored to come before a panel of former colleagues whom I hold in such high esteem to testify on behalf of the fiscal year 2011 appropriations request for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In my seven months as NEH Chairman, I have been constantly reminded of just how important this small but vital agency is to the humanities in the United States.

The budget justification we submitted to Congress last month describes in some detail our current activities and our plans for the next fiscal year. I would like to take a moment of the committee’s time today to discuss some of the key features of our request and to offer a perspective about the agency and how the humanities fit into the fabric of American society.

My view of the humanities is rather straightforward: They are about bringing perspective to the personal and public challenges of the day. History, literature, philosophy, and related disciplines illuminate the human condition. Values, for instance, cannot simply be understood as abstract concoctions. They take on meaning as individuals address enduring questions about life’s purposes. Such examinations are made possible by the study of civilization’s greatest literary and cultural works—that is, by engaging in humanistic inquiry and reflection.

In carrying out my duties as NEH Chairman, I have come to see that culture can be used either to unite peoples of differing backgrounds, or magnified as a lightening rod to accentuate their differences. At issue are not only problems of social cohesion at home but also direct challenges deliberately leveled to our values and capacities abroad.

It is in this overall context of a challenged America that the NEH has launched an initiative we are calling Bridging Cultures. The initiative is being designed to help American citizens gain a deeper understanding of our own rich and varied cultural heritage, as well as the history and culture of other nations. We have requested a modest sum of money in our FY 2011 budget that will be used to launch pilot projects that engage scholars, public audiences, the state humanities councils, and educators in cultural bridging themes. Projects relating to these themes also will be encouraged through each of our grant programs, and the traditional work of the state humanities councils, utilizing where possible public and private sector partnerships.

There is abundant evidence of the need for a Bridging Cultures initiative. Numerous reports indicate that many Americans lack even cursory knowledge of other nations, not to mention our own history. Such lack of knowledge has serious and ultimately dangerous ramifications: incivility and disharmony at home; misunderstandings detrimental to our national security abroad; and an inability to compete effectively in the global economy. As President Obama said in his address last June to students at Cairo University: “There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other, to respect one another; and to seek common ground.” The NEH’s Bridging Cultures initiative is intended to reflect the concerns the President so eloquently expressed.
As a key component of this initiative, I have begun a fifty-state civility tour to try to make clear that coarseness in public manners can jeopardize social cohesion. Civilization requires civility. Words matter. Just as polarizing attitudes can jeopardize social cohesion and even public safety, healing approaches, such as Lincoln’s call in the closing days of the Civil War for a new direction “with malice toward none,” can uplift and help bring society and the world closer together. To some, the connection of “civility” to the humanities may not be immediately apparent. The Oxford English Dictionary helpfully reminds us that among the original definitions of this word is “training in the humanities.” Through humanities studies, it was believed, citizens could acquire a depth of understanding of history and culture that more readily allows civic engagement free of the rancor that often characterizes the expression of ill-informed opinions.

These notions of civility form the backdrop for the civility tour. Little is more important for the world’s leading democracy in this change-intensive century than establishing an ethos of thoughtfulness and decency of expression in the public square. The exchange of ideas and consideration of other viewpoints are central not only to understanding the disciplines that fall under the rubric of the humanities, but to improving the human condition.

Thus far, I have traveled from Olympia, Washington to Columbia, South Carolina; from Tallahassee, Florida to Augusta, Maine; from Jackson, Mississippi to Madison, Wisconsin; from Charleston, North Carolina to Detroit, Michigan, and spoken at venues ranging from university and museum lecture halls to hospitals for veterans. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. There is a hunger in America for thoughtful dialogue and balanced debate on the issues of the day.

While Bridging Cultures will be a special emphasis of our activities in FY 2011, the Endowment will continue to pursue its primary mission of providing support for high quality projects in the humanities, programs that improve: instruction in the humanities in the nation’s schools and institutions of higher education; efforts of the state humanities councils to bring the humanities to citizens in their states; public programs that creatively draw people into the humanities; scholarly research that creates new knowledge and insights and preserves and makes accessible the best works and ideas of the past; and efforts to leverage non-federal support for the humanities.

On the assumption that over the next decade the need to restore fiscal order will consume families, cities, states, and the federal government, where does the case for continued public support for the humanities fit in?

The real world irony that Congress faces is that demand for government programs increases in trying economic times—i.e., when the governmental resource base weakens. This is as true for the programs that provide perspective and uplift for citizens just as those that provide other basics. Indeed, hard times have increased demand and utilization of many cultural institutions at the same time resource capacities have been reduced.

In this context, I am convinced that the American people have been well served by NEH projects and programs, and ask that Congress continue its support of this small agency committed to expanding the idea base of America. Hard times require attention not only to recovery but to avoidance of their repetition.
There is historical precedent for consideration of the humanities during other difficult periods in American history. In the middle of our country’s most traumatic conflict, President Lincoln in 1862 signed the Morrill Act establishing land grant universities in every state in the union. Likewise, in the darkest days of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt foresaw that support for the humanities and the arts—via the WPA, the Federal Writers’ Project, and other federal programs—would be a unifying act, providing work for some and enlightenment for all.

The universe of individuals working in institutions engaged in the humanities in the United States today is significant. The nation’s 4,400 institutions of higher learning employ approximately 125,000 humanities faculty who teach millions of students. An additional 3.7 million teachers—many, if not most, teaching humanities subjects—are hard at work teaching the millions of school children who attend the more than 127,000 K-12 schools in this country. Just as importantly, America’s 17,500 museums and historical societies, which each year greet 2.3 million visitors per day, form the cultural backbone of cities and towns across the country. Collectively, these humanities institutions, and the practitioners they employ, form a critical part of the American economy.
A complicating trauma in the humanities today is the recent loss of asset value of the endowments of many colleges, universities, museums, libraries, historical societies, archives, and the philanthropic organizations that support them. In addition, state support of higher education and cultural endeavors has declined, and at the institutional level there has been a general erosion of education dollars away from areas of inquiry like history, literature, languages, and philosophy that provide context and perspective to issues that confront the nation and individual citizens.

Even though globalization requires cross-cultural knowledge, respectful understanding of peoples and their problems, and such basics as the ability to speak other languages, colleges and universities are increasingly emphasizing what some consider more intensively job relevant studies. Hence the role of the NEH in supporting humanities research and humanities disciplines is more critical than ever.

There is, of course, cost involved in any federal program and in many cases a cost as well to not meeting certain social obligations. While public expenditures for NEH programs can be measured precisely, the indirect costs to society of not paying attention to the disciplines that bring perspective to the most pressing issues of the day are more conjectural. While the magnitude of that cost is incalculable, it is not slight.

A citizenry that does not understand its unique heritage as well as foreign cultures will not benefit from the lessons of history, the stimulus of literature, the values that philosophy can illumine and clarify. It will struggle in a global economy and be prone to foreign policy mistakes.

In a world where our leadership will continually be tested, America cannot afford to ignore the humanities. They are us.

Thank you.