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Internationalism and the Common Good

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

Oklahoma Humanities Magazine Oklahoma City, OK
United States

September 8, 2015


In recent months, I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to the history of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the ways in which the agency has contributed to the cultural wealth and resources of both the United States and the global community. Over its first fifty years, NEH has dispersed more than $5.3 billion in grants to scholars, teachers, museums, libraries, filmmakers, landmarks, universities, and other organizations, among them the state humanities councils. Those grants—more than 62,000 to date—have supported the preservation of important papers and documents, blockbuster documentaries on turning points and important figures in U.S. history, workshops for teachers, Pulitzer Prize-winning books, and the digitization of newspapers that represent the first draft of our country’s history.

Without a doubt, many people across the country better understand who we are as a nation because of NEH’s efforts to preserve our legacy and to support the telling of our stories. As we prepare to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary, we are undertaking a new initiative called The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square, which will encourage humanities scholars and organizations to engage important challenges and issues in our public lives.

As we seek to make an important contribution to American life, it’s important to note that, even from its earliest days, the Endowment never limited itself or its support to national interests and needs alone. It has instead kept faith with two important ideas: first, there are no national boundaries to the humanities and, second, there should be no geographical limits to the endeavors we support. NEH-funded scholars and organizations have studied the archaeological remains of the ancient world and worked to save the cultural patrimony of Egypt, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iraq. NEH-funded work in Latin America has revealed much about the workings of early civilizations in the Western Hemisphere. The international slave trade is better understood because NEH supported a collaboration that includes scholars in North and South America, Europe, Africa, and New Zealand. During the last decade, NEH (along with the National Science Foundation) has advanced efforts to document endangered languages around the world, and, in April, NEH held the Fourth U.S.-China Cultural Forum to discuss international collaboration on humanities projects.

Why does NEH consider projects with international perspectives, and why might Oklahoma Humanities produce an issue on internationalism? The answer is straightforward—to deepen our understanding of other cultures and thereby enable us to grasp the truly global context of our lives.

We live on an interconnected planet where the differences between people’s deep-seated beliefs can sometimes be profound and seemingly irreconcilable. The study of history, religion, and culture—and other humanities subjects—promotes cross-cultural understanding. When we enter the histories and fundamental beliefs of people from cultures different from our own, we have the starting point for conversation, mutual respect, and even friendship. When those conversations happen among nations, real internationalism becomes possible.

This issue of Oklahoma Humanities is in keeping with the magazine’s tradition of introducing readers to a complex theme through a multifaceted prism. I look forward to learning from these articles.

In closing, I would like to thank the Oklahoma Humanities Council for being a partner with NEH in nurturing the world of ideas, increasing our cultural capital, and advancing the work of the humanities across the Sooner State. I know that our partnership will expand and deepen over the next fifty years.