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A Tribute to Senator Claiborne Pell

William D. Adams, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Salve Regina University Newport, RI
United States

August 12, 2015

"A Tribute to Senator Claiborne Pell"

Thank you, Senator Reed, for that introduction, and thanks to everyone attending today for sharing in this moment of recalling and honoring the legacy of Claiborne Pell. As we begin the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Humanities, I’m enormously pleased to have the chance to share some of my own thoughts about Senator Pell’s contribution to the creation and evolution of NEH.

Before doing that I want to acknowledge several people. I’m grateful for the time I’ve spent in Washington and here in Rhode Island with Senator Reed, and it’s a pleasure being here with you again today. I also want to thank and recognize Senator Whitehouse and Congressman Cicilline for their presence today, and to say how pleased I am to be here with you, as well. As a former college president, I know how busy Sister Jane Gerety is—thank you for your presence. Finally, I want to thank Jim Ludes of the Pell Center and Elizabeth Francis of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities for conceiving and hosting this event.

The best way for me to honor Senator Pell is to talk briefly about the history of NEH. That’s not so easy, as it turns out. Consider these numbers. Over the last five decades, NEH has made roughly 63,000 grants totaling $5.3 billion and leveraging an additional $2.5 billion in matching grants. This impressive stream of funding has supported some 29,000 research fellowships for humanities scholars; nearly 200 film, television, and radio documentaries; 5,280 grants for the preservation of humanities materials, collections, and resources; more than 4,000 seminars and institutes for nearly 85,000 college faculty and high school teachers; hundreds of challenge grants to museums, libraries, historical sites, and colleges and universities in every part of the country, and funding for humanities councils in every state and territory.

What matters more than the raw numbers—especially where the legacy of Senator Pell is concerned—is the fundamental character and direction of NEH’s programs. In studying the agency’s history, I’ve been struck by two aspects our work—the steadily expanding reach and impact of our programs, and the related growth of the humanities infrastructure in the United States.

In the years immediately following the passage of the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965, NEH moved along a path similar to that laid down in the previous decade by the National Science Foundation. The advancement of fundamental knowledge in the humanities was a matter of national significance, our founders argued, and the federal government had both an interest and obligation to provide symbolic and financial support. Not surprisingly, the first and highest priority at NEH in the early years was the scholarly agenda of the research university.

But forces outside the academy were also at work in shaping the Endowment’s mission and practices. Members of Congress—with Claiborne Pell leading the way—believed fervently that the work of the NEH must have a strong and visible public dimension. As a result of Senator Pell’s influence, the State humanities councils were created in the early 1970s to help address this public agenda, and a few years later NEH established its Division of Public Programs and began experimenting with programming in the public arena, primarily in the museum field and in public television.

These early efforts were at first somewhat halting and uncertain. But they led to bolder and more confident initiatives in subsequent years, especially in the fields of documentary filmmaking, radio production, and support for humanities programs in public and private libraries, historic sites, and cultural organizations of all shapes and sizes. The first decade of NEH’s work also saw the creation of a program of seminars and institutes for college teachers, which were expanded in the 1980s to include high school teachers.

In subsequent decades, NEH’s commitments to publicly engaged humanities work continued to expand. The Division of Public Programs became one of the largest in the agency, while other standing programs of the agency became increasingly focused on the public uses and relevance of grant-making in their respective areas. The Preservation and Access program developed important partnerships with the Library of Congress and with the National Science Foundation in projects as wide-ranging as historic newspaper preservation and the documentation of endangered languages. And for the past eighteen years, the EDSITEment website has helped high school teachers and administrators locate high-quality web-based humanities resources for incorporation in the classroom.

In short, what began as an enterprise devoted to research became an engine for a complex and diverse array of humanities activities and practices around the country.

In part as a result of the work of NEH and related agencies, the humanities infrastructure of the United States has grown impressively over the past five decades. There are now more than 35,000 museums in the United States. According to the American Alliance of Museums, these institutions attract approximately 850 million visitors every year, exceeding attendance for all professional sporting events and theme parks combined. The American Library Association reports that there are now nearly 120,000 libraries of every shape and size in the United States. In 2012 alone, over 92 million people attended the nearly 4 million programs offered by public libraries.

NEH’s grants fuel these and other core elements of the country’s cultural infrastructure in a number of ways. Our Preservation and Access programs are crucial to the work libraries and museums are doing to preserve and develop their collections. Grants from Public Programs fund the exhibitions that bring members of the public into museums, libraries, and historic sites. The Office of Digital Humanities is helping institutions experiment with cutting-edge digital methods by which to present and explore humanities materials and resources. And our Challenge Grants program provides crucial funds to the endowments of cultural organizations seeking to secure their institutional capacity to serve their publics.

Significant public participation in humanities-based activities continues to grow in other areas, as well. The Public Broadcasting Service estimates that more than 33 million people viewed the initial broadcast of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, the latest NEH-funded Ken Burns documentary. NEH-funded radio productions reach millions of listeners every year through National Public Radio and affiliated stations across the country. Through WNET in New York and other organizations, NEH is now supporting the development of humanities-based digital games that can be used by young people at home and in schools.

As important as NEH’s public profile has become, it has not diverted the agency’s attention from the original commitment to research and scholarship. This year, NEH will fund more than one hundred fellowships for college and university professors and independent scholars working on projects in all of the fundamental disciplines of the humanities, including nearly forty fellowships in the newly established Public Scholars Program. In almost every case, these fellowships will shape future work in humanities fields.

The Research Program also will support dozens of projects in Scholarly Editions and Translations, which last year included new or continuing work in The Mark Twain Project, the Papers of George C. Marshall, the Papers of James Monroe, the Papers of Benjamin Franklin, the Complete Letters of Willa Cather, and Historical Voices of the Plains Earth Lodge Peoples, among many others. In a similar vein, our Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grants in Preservation and Access help institutions build tools and reference works that form the basis of research in all of the humanities disciplines.

Research follows its own intrinsic logic and imperatives, but one never knows just how and when it might matter in the public realm. In the recent Supreme Court case on gay marriage, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion cited three works on the history of marriage. Two of the writers cited in Kennedy’s opinion received NEH fellowships supporting their scholarship. In a recent article on the Court’s decision in Inside Higher Ed, the historian Johann Neem wrote: “We need to reinvest in [humanities] research infrastructure so that we can continue to generate insights that will help us make sense of our most pressing public questions.” It’s a mark of NEH’s success that it has been able to engage so many domains and dimensions of humanities work—popular and scholarly, individual and institutional, contemporary and historical, conceptual and material—and to see these poles occasionally come together in such a dramatic way.

The credit for that success goes to many people, but I can think of no one who exerted greater influence on NEH’s early turn toward public matters than Senator Pell. The text of the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, which brought the NEH and the NEA into being, includes this stirring phrase: “The humanities belong to all the people of the United States.” Indeed they do, and so does NEH, thanks to Claiborne Pell. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the signing of our founding legislation, we salute the vision of Senator Pell, who could not have foreseen the fullest public expression of the accomplishment to come, but whose instincts and drive made it possible.

Thank you.