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STEM and the Humanities: a False Dichotomy

2013 Graduate College Distinguished Lecture

University of Illinois

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

University of Illinois Graduate College Address Urbana, IL
United States

April 17, 2013

Dean Dutta, distinguished scholars, friends:

It is my intent to address the state of the humanities at a time when a misconceived psychological cleavage is fast developing between the humanities and the STEM disciplines.

Bizarrely, a potential rupture may be emerging that could affect our quality of life and, potentially, American leadership in the world.  My thesis is that the humanities and fields of inquiry related to science, technology, engineering and math are complementary rather than competitive.  Each set of disciplines is essential.  Each bolsters the other.  Indeed, the humanities without STEM define economic stagnation, and STEM without the humanities could precipitate social disaster.

Before developing this thesis, let me briefly describe the institution which I head. The National Endowment for the Humanities is in the knowledge development and perspective sharing business.  At the heart of our work is concern for expanding America's knowledge base and disseminating the accumulated wisdom that studies of history and stories of the human condition illumine. According to our founding legislation, the NEH is directed to support research and public programs in a range of humanistic studies, from history, literature, and philosophy to archaeology, language, both modern and classical, linguistics, jurisprudence, comparative religion, ethics, the history, criticism and theory of the arts, and those aspects of the social sciences that "have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods."

With this broad mandate, our founding legislation affirms that "democracy demands wisdom." The implicit statutory goal laid out for the NEH is thus a citizenship challenge: to provide the perspective of the humanities "to the current conditions of national life."

Our work in the humanities is analogous to that of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Many of our grant-making processes are similar.  Like NSF and NIH, we ask scholars and experts in various fields to peer review proposals that are submitted.  Like these two august science institutions, NEH is designed to be an incubator rather than director of thought. We are committed to free thought freely expressed on the assumption that the challenge of providing perspective to issues of the day requires a wide range of scholarly input from outside the walls of government.

Relative to our scientific counterparts, resources dedicated to humanities research are quite limited. We are able to fund only about one in seven competitive applications.  In addition, we work closely with and provide approximately half the total budgets for the educational outreach programs of humanities councils in each of the fifty states, the District of Columbia and five territories. These councils in turn work closely with regional academic institutions and put on over 50,000 programs a year reaching every corner of the country and the territories over which the United States holds jurisdiction.

All of NEH's work is governed by the pursuit of excellence.  While our resources are decidedly constrained, we are proud of the critical role we play in humanities research and public programming.  In conjunction with affiliated state councils, the NEH is quite likely the largest humanities outreach organization in the world. Since our conception, we have facilitated over a billion words of scholarship involving thousands of books, dozens of which have won Pulitzer, Bancroft and assorted scholarly prizes. Likewise, the documentary films that NEH has supported, from the works of Ken Burns to four recent documentaries on various aspects of America's civil rights history, are much decorated and widely viewed. Almost ten million people, for instance, have so far seen at least one of the quartet of films released this past year documenting our country's struggle to advance equal rights for all. This viewing  figure will be multiplied over and over  in years to come as we provide the films to hundreds of schools  and  libraries and  allow them to be viewed  by the public on our NEH website.