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Fearless and Free

Celebrating the Fortieth Anniversary of the National Endowment for the Humanities

By Bruce Cole | HUMANITIES, September/October 2005 | Volume 26, Number 5

This September the NEH celebrates its fortieth anniversary. To mark the occasion, the Endowment is printing in book form excerpts of the conversations that Chairman Bruce Cole has conducted in Humanities about the nature of the humanities, from history to the heroics of boxers. The following is taken from the introduction to the book, Fearless and Free.

The National Endowment for the Humanities marks its fortieth anniversary this year with a look not just at our history but at the challenges of today and tomorrow. Eighteen thoughtful and fascinating people--among them an historian, a poet, a university professor, a classicist, a critic, a cabinet secretary, an antiques dealer, and a chef--speak to the breadth and vitality of the humanities in this difficult, dangerous era.

The NEH was founded in the belief that cultivating the best of the humanities has tangible benefits for civic life. The words of our founding legislation say that "democracy demands wisdom and vision." Government of, by, and for the people needs educated and thoughtful citizens.

Today we find ourselves in a conflict driven by religion, philosophy, political ideology, and competing views of history-all humanities subjects. Without a continually deeper knowledge of each, we would have no bearings, no sense of how the past informs the present, no experience imagining worlds other than our own.

From Homer through Beowulf and beyond, people learned their heritage and history through story and song, and they passed those stories and songs to the next generation.

Great civilizations all cultivate memory, in Abraham Lincoln's words the "mystic chords of memory, stretching from battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land."

For four decades, the Endowment has enhanced Americans' awareness of their own culture and history and other peoples' as well. With NEH support, teams of scholars have created monographs such as The Cambridge History of China, the Encyclopedia of Islam, and The Oxford History of the British Empire. More than one thousand translations have made key cultural texts available to English-language readers, helping them understand historical, philosophical, and religious developments in other parts of the world. And editions of great texts of scientific thought, including works by Darwin and Galileo and Newton, have enabled students to explore how scientists approached perplexing questions of the universe.

During the past forty years, NEH fellowships have been the single largest supporter of scholarly research in the United States, making possible thousands of publications and presentations.

NEH funds have also helped rescue the raw materials of culture on which this research is based. One million brittle books and seventy million pages of decaying newspapers are now on microfilm, thanks to the Endowment's help. But preservation is only part of the story. The NEH has also made these materials accessible to a larger audience, funding hundreds of museum exhibitions, library displays, films, and Web sites.

In partnership with the fifty-six state and territorial councils, the Endowment has carried American audiences from Tutankhamen in ancient Egypt through the time of the Medicis and on to the present. The cultural encounters may take place under a Chautauqua tent, around the table of a neighborhood book club, or over the airwaves of local radio.

Technology keeps easing the path. The Internet resource EDSITEment (edsitement.neh.gov) provides the lesson plans for 150 top-rated Web sites, while digitization has begun to make every desktop into the sort of archive no emperor ever imagined. It democratizes knowledge and makes it available at the click of a mouse.

This is just the latest advance in learning. In the past forty years, tens of thousands of teachers have taken a break from their classrooms to study in Endowment seminars and institutes, returning with renewed energy and deeper understanding.

Nothing could be more important. Too often these days, our young people exhibit an alarming lack of historical knowledge. Often they do not know the basic facts, concepts, and ideals that have continued to sustain our country over the last two and a half centuries. Why does it matter? It matters because a democracy is not self-sustaining. Knowledge of its institutions and values must be transmitted between the generations.

No one has expressed this better than Benjamin Franklin. Emerging from the Constitutional Convention, he was asked by a bystander whether the delegates had given the people a republic or a monarchy. He replied, "A republic, madam--if you can keep it."

This need to keep it is especially important today. When hatred of our liberties, democratic values, and freedoms incite murderous attacks, it is essential that we understand just what our liberties are and how we got them. We cannot defend what we cannot define. To address this urgent national need, President Bush in a Rose Garden speech on Constitution Day 2002 launched the NEH's We the People initiative designed to improve the teaching and understanding of American history and culture. With the president's leadership and with support from both sides of the aisle in Congress, we have launched new programs such as the Landmarks of American History Workshops, where teachers study with experts at the very places where history was made--homes, battlefields, and even whole cities. Building on a twenty-year effort to save, catalog, and microfilm nearly seventy million pages of historic newspapers, the NEH is now, in collaboration with the Library of Congress, beginning to digitize millions of pages that will be available to the American public free and forever. This monumental effort, the National Digital Newspaper Program, will provide the first great draft of our history--unfiltered and searchable. We continue to support publication of The Papers of George Washington and other presidential papers projects.

Thousands of libraries around the country are receiving our We the People Bookshelf, sets of high-quality books for students which explore the great issues of our history such as freedom or courage or becoming an American. We have also instituted a new lecture series on American heroes and an essay contest on the Idea of America to explore the concepts and values that hold us together.

The fearless and free exchange of ideas, respect for individual conscience, belief in the power of education--all these values are implicit in the study of the humanities.