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Humanities and the Role of NEH

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

National Endowment for the Humanities
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W.
Washington, DC 20506
United States

September 25, 2009

Welcome to the NEH’s third annual Project Directors Meeting for digital humanities start-up grants.

Perspective is difficult to apply to events of the day or for that matter to disciplinary fields, but in thinking through a theme that might characterize the subject matter and the endeavors under discussion today, the concept of “process” leaps to mind.

Here at NEH, process may be our most important product. That is, each of you who is presenting a synopsis of what your NEH grant is helping facilitate has been subjected to peer review. The best and brightest in a variety of fields of endeavor are invited to the NEH each year to assess grant applications in a myriad of disciplines. In this case, in this exciting new field of digital humanities, 819 grant applications have been submitted in the past three years, of which 99—or 12 percent—have been funded.

The winnowing decision-making, like that at the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), is based on peer review. Peer reviewed determinations—i.e., non‑partisan, non-political, non-earmarked judgments of private sector experts—are extraordinarily unusual at any level of American governance and almost non-existent in the governance of most other societies on the planet.

What this means is that NEH is constructed to be an incubator, rather than director, of thought in the humanities. We are committed to free thought, freely expressed on the assumption that the challenge of providing perspective to issues of the day and culture of the moment requires an openness to creative input from outside the stone walls of the wondrous architectural monuments of the nature we are fortunate to have offices within, and tolerance of possible criticism about our society, our government, even our own institutional undertaking.

To fail to study history, to refuse to derive lessons about the nature of man and the human condition resplendent in literature, and to refuse to think through philosophical and ethical quandaries of the day are invitations to magnify the misjudgments of contemporaries and repeat the mistakes of others in the near and ancient past.

We all understand how controversial modern politics can be. But culture is larger than politics, and the past can often be more controversial than current events.

The passage of time helps, but never fully clarifies. For instance, there are contrasting lessons of the two great wars of the 20th century. In the immediate aftermath of the carnage of World War I, much attention was devoted in scholarly circles to the lessons of that war. In retrospect it seemed almost inexplicable that a minor event, the assassination of a relatively insignificant archduke, could precipitate a war that resulted in the loss of so many million lives. A compelling conclusion followed that the European state system lacked flexibility. Unfortunately, based on this valid observation about the circumstances of 1914, Chamberlain and other European leaders drew the false conclusion a generation later that wisdom lay in appeasing fascist forces in a revived Germany. We are thus left with two contrasting models of failed statecraft: too little flexibility can be destabilizing; so can too much. Judgment must involve an understanding of contemporaneous circumstances as well as past events.

What does this imply for the digital humanities? Like NEH and its grant-making, digital humanities is disproportionately about the concept of process—the application of new techniques to historical, literary, and philosophical inquiry. Digitizing records is the greatest breakthrough in record keeping since the invention of the printing press in China and later Germany, which replaced the labor‑intensive efforts of calligraphers using scrolls, early medieval monks using animal skins and paper products, and Middle Eastern scribes carving hieroglyphics on stone and stenciling on papyrus.

The technological leap forward implicit in the digital humanities is in its infancy. While its implications are only beginning to be understood, what is clear is that the capacity to preserve documents, some of great age, thoughts of the moment and of the past, and signature aspects of contemporary and disappearing cultures is now far easier. What is also clear is that new mathematics-based techniques amount to the development of a new language in the sense that the ability to communicate across disciplines and across continents has exponentially increased. Cross-cultural studies and cross-national access have broken down traditional barriers to the utilization and spread of knowledge. As symbolized by the grant recipients in this room, research has been democratized; and as symbolized by the computer revolution, access to knowledge will never again be the near exclusive province of classes of people or specific nation-states.

Private groups and corporate entrepreneurs will presumably continue to be the leading actors in advancing this technology. But in the many areas where profit-making is not at issue, the role of institutions like NEH and the Library of Congress is vitally important. We have, for instance, partnered in funding the digital preservation of millions of American newspaper pages going back to the 19th century. We have also helped make accessible to students, scholars, and citizens anywhere thirsting for perspective the papers of public and literary figures from the United States and assisted in preserving endangered languages and cultural treasures from abroad. This is part of America’s gift to ourselves and to the world.

What is so interesting about the topics presented today is that many appear esoteric. But often from the seemingly small, large implications can follow, and the bigger picture can be better understood. And the processes applied in one way for one application can be built upon to apply in an analogous way to another subject, thus not only advancing a knowledge base in one discipline, but bridging approaches and knowledge into other disciplines. There are, after all, analogies between research in the humanities and that in the sciences. Sometimes the small illumines the large; sometimes there is failure; frequently there are surprises; always human curiosity is piqued.

Thank you for leading us.