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The Common Good - National Press Club Newsmaker Luncheon

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

National Press Club Newsmaker Luncheon
529 14th Street, NW
Washington , DC 20045
United States

January 15, 2015

(As prepared for delivery)

I want to thank the National Press Club for this opportunity to speak about the important work of the National Endowment for the Humanities. I also want to thank my colleagues at NEH, including members of our National Council and the National Humanities Trust, for being here today. Special thanks go to Judy Havemann for helping with the arrangements. My guests at the head table—Phil Lewis from the Mellon Foundation, Carol Schneider from the AAC&U, and Betsy Broun from the Smithsonian American Art Museum—are great colleagues and eloquent advocates for the humanities, and I’m honored by their presence. I’m grateful as well to other friends and colleagues who have joined us from humanities organizations around the region and from Colby College, where I served as president for fourteen years. Welcome to all and thank you for coming.

I’ve come today to announce an exciting new initiative at NEH, one we believe will bring the humanities and humanities scholars into the forefront of current discussions of American life. But first, and by way of context, I’d like to offer some words about NEH and its role in our cultural life.

On September 29, 1965—nearly 50 years ago—President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation of the Arts and Humanities Act. The act created both the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and was part of a remarkable legislative agenda. In a brief four-year span, the Congress passed, in addition to the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1964, the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Social Security Amendments of 1965, which created Medicare and Medicaid, the National Historic Preservation Trust Act of 1966, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act. The legacies of these ambitious pieces of legislation are still debated here in Washington and elsewhere, but there is no question that they changed the country in profound and lasting ways.  

In the intervening years, NEH has certainly changed some things. Since its founding, the agency has made roughly 71,000 grants to individuals and organizations totaling approximately $5 billion and leveraging an additional $2.4 billion in private philanthropy. These grants have supported humanities scholars and high school teachers, colleges and universities, and museums, libraries and historical associations and sites in every state and territory. They have funded the work of documentary filmmakers, radio producers, museum curators, and librarians, and they have helped many small and large cultural organizations preserve artifacts, documents, and collections that serve as the building blocks of cultural memory and history. They have also enabled humanities scholars and organizations to exploit digital technology for research, preservation, and the dissemination of humanities materials and resources.  

The most significant result of this work has been the steady growth of the cultural capital of the United States. NEH has had many partners in this work, including humanities councils in every state and territory, state and local governments, private foundations, and generous individuals. But without the Endowment’s leadership and symbolic authority, and without its singular commitment to the entire nation’s cultural legacy and capacity, our cultural foundations would be far less impressive and far less widely appreciated by the American people and many others around the world.

The importance of cultural capital can be measured in a number of ways, beginning with the breadth and depth of public engagement that it creates and sustains. Two NEH grant programs are exemplary in this regard.

In the early 1970s, under the leadership of Chairman Ronald Berman, NEH decided to invest aggressively in museums, documentary filmmaking, and television productions. The results were felt almost immediately. On the museum side, NEH grants supported a number of large and hugely successful art exhibits in major museums around the country, including the path-breaking Tutankhamen exhibit in 1976, which was seen by nearly 8 million people here in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago. In New York, nearly 30 percent of the visitors were first-time museum goers. This exhibit, and several others like it, changed forever the way museums think about their publics and how the public thinks about museums. Steve Martin even wrote a satirical song about it, which you can still watch on YouTube.

NEH’s investment in documentary filmmaking has also had extraordinary impact. Ken Burns’ first film, The Brooklyn Bridge, came out in 1982 to high praise. It was followed by The Life and Times of Huey Long in 1986 and then by The Civil War, which first aired in 1990 and was seen by 12 million viewers. Ken’s most recent NEH-funded film, The Roosevelts, was seen by 33 million people during its first airing on public television stations across the country.  

These grand productions are impressive, but they represent only the tip of the iceberg of NEH’s impact. Millions more Americans have been touched in some way by the state humanities councils, NEH-supported libraries and museums and historical associations across the country, by the work of NEH-funded scholars, including 18 Pulitzer Prize winners and 20 Bancroft Prize winners, by NEH seminars and institutes for educators and by the courses those educators offered in the wake of their NEH-funded experiences. And then there is the website EDSITEment, which offers humanities resources to primary and secondary school teachers and draws more than three million visitors each year. 

Public engagement is important, but cultural capital matters in other ways. The cultural economy is hugely important to the economic health of thousands of communities around the country, and it is likely to matter more and more as the economic base of the United States continues to shift away from manufacturing to financial services, healthcare, retail, human services, information technology and education.

More important still, our democracy relies on the knowledge our citizens have of our political history and the principles and values that history was built upon. Ensuring that this story is told is among NEH’s most important responsibilities and accomplishments.

The legislation creating NEH and NEA was inspired by the report of the National Commission on the Humanities, which was formed in 1963 through the combined energies of the American Council of Learned Societies, the Council of Graduate Schools, and the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa. The Commission was chaired by Barnaby Keeney, the president of Brown University and later NEH’s first Chairman, and it included an impressive array of university administrators, prominent scholars, librarians, and museum directors. It also included Tom Watson, Jr., the second president of IBM and ambassador to the Soviet Union, who knew a thing or two about the relationship among culture, industry, and technology.

The Commission advanced several basic arguments for the establishment of agencies devoted to the arts and humanities that were later used in the founding legislation. Here they are, in highly distilled form:

The humanities embrace the great and enduring human values of justice, freedom, equality, virtue, beauty and truth. Without the deliberate cultivation of the humanities in the public sphere, we risk losing sight of these values;

American democracy demands that citizens understand its history and its fundamental principles and values;  

The humanities promote the kind of cross-cultural and multi-cultural understanding that is required in an increasingly inter-connected world;

Given its economic and military power in the world, the United States must be a leader in the realm of ideas and of the human spirit and therefore has a compelling interest in developing humanistic knowledge and institutions.

Shaping all of these arguments was the conviction that NEH would have to be focused at once on two related but somewhat different spheres of activity. On the one hand, the agency would have to invest in fundamental research in the various academic fields composing the humanities—in philosophy, literary studies, art history, archaeology, anthropology, languages, linguistics, political theory, and so forth.

At the same time, the founders, and particularly early supporters in Congress, were also determined that humanities research have public meaning, influence, and impact. The legislation declared that “(t)he humanities belong to all the people of the United States”[1], and accordingly NEH had to be committed not just to the cultivation of the “best of what has been thought and said,”[2] in the oft-repeated words of Matthew Arnold, but to the public and where the public lives, in “the current conditions of national life.”[3] John Letson, an official in the Atlanta public school system and an early member of NEH’s National Council, expressed this populist impulse succinctly when he called for the NEH “to broaden the general area of the humanities as the equipment of all the citizens.”[4] 

And so for nearly 50 years, NEH has carried on its work with these twin purposes in mind: to ensure leadership in the realm of ideas and the spirit while engaging the humanities with the public and with the circumstances of contemporary life. This marriage of what we might think of as the classical and the pragmatic, or the scholarly and the popular, has not always been easy. Like many marriages, it has experienced misunderstanding and even jealousy. But it’s also been enormously creative and vital to NEH’s success in building the cultural capital of the country.  

It’s with that achievement in mind, and with an eye to the celebration of our 50th anniversary this coming fall, that the agency is officially announcing today a new initiative called “The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square.” As the title suggests, the purpose of this initiative is to engage humanities scholars and organizations with the complex issues playing out in our public lives, and to demonstrate the relevance and power of the humanities in tackling those issues.  

The notion of ‘the common good’ should be familiar to us. It is central to democratic political theory and expresses both the right and the obligation of citizens to debate and determine the general welfare; it is the aspirational goal, the guiding ambition that anchors citizenship and participation in democratic politics. Evoking this sense of aspiration, Ben Franklin said it well: “To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine."[5]

NEH’s hope is to encourage humanities scholars and organizations to turn their attention toward public life. More specifically, the initiative invites humanists to engage in illuminating the grand challenges that we now face as a nation. No list of such challenges is definitive, but here are some contemporary questions about which humanists have much to say:

How can the humanities illuminate both the positive and worrisome ways in which the remarkable advances in information technology are affecting individuals and communities in contemporary American life?

How can the humanities enrich the debate over the appropriate balance of security and privacy that technological advances have placed before us?

How can the humanities deepen public understanding of the meaning of democratic citizenship in the twenty-first century, in relation to our founding principles and values, our political history, and our current circumstances?

How can the humanities contribute to the understanding of the relationships between humans and the natural world?

How can the humanities illuminate the legacies of recent wars and conflicts and contribute to the achievement of a deeper and broader public understanding of the experience and lessons of war?

How can the humanities contribute to the full incorporation of veterans into civilian life and help all of us appreciate their unique perspectives?

How can the humanities assist the country in addressing the challenges and opportunities created by the changing demographics in many American communities?

How can the humanities illuminate the enormous promise of new biomedical technologies and procedures and deepen our understanding of the complex ethical and personal questions they raise? 

How can the humanities address the various forms of cultural and political polarization that have become so prevalent in contemporary American life and thereby contribute to the building of new forms of community and understanding?

Beginning this month, NEH will welcome proposals in all appropriate grant programs for projects that draw on the resources and methods of the humanities to engage the public in understanding these and other important dimensions of contemporary life. Several specific areas of grant-making are important to mention here:  

A few weeks ago, and in anticipation of today’s announcement, NEH launched The Public Scholar Program, which will support well-researched books in the humanities intended to reach a wide audience. The program aims to encourage scholarship that will be of broad public interest and that will have lasting impact.

Under the rubric of The Common Good, the Endowment also intends to expand its Standing Together initiative, which supports projects and grants connecting the humanities to the experiences of veterans and other aspects of war. This initiative has already supported work in all 50 states and the territories through a special grant made last spring, and we hope that it will be able to provide even more support in the 2016 budget year, where we have made it a funding priority.

As part of The Common Good initiative, we are very pleased to announce today a new collaboration with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Open Book project is designed to give second life to outstanding out-of-print books in the humanities by making them freely accessible as e-books. This is our first collaboration of this kind with the Mellon Foundation, which has been a leading funder of the humanities since its founding in 1969.   

Finally, the Museums, Libraries and Cultural Organizations Program at NEH will encourage proposals for public humanities programs that reach new, underserved, or underrepresented audiences. In this regard, we’ve just announced a major partnership with the American Library Association supporting community programs nationwide on the theme of “Latino Americans: 500 Years of History.”

We believe that The Common Good initiative is important and timely for several reasons.

First, we’re convinced that The Common Good will be good for the humanities and for humanities scholarship.  We’re all aware of recent criticisms that humanists have become too inwardly and professionally focused. This initiative will provide encouragement and support to humanities scholars who wish to demonstrate the relevance of their professional interests and skills to American life.

My recent experience suggests that this encouragement will be welcomed within the humanities community, both inside and outside the academy. Within the academy, there is growing concern about the confines that the tenure system places on what is and is not regarded as legitimate scholarship. And beyond the academy, there is a hunger for the particular angle of vision that humanists can bring to public concerns. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times spoke for many late last summer when he said: “. . . for me, the humanities are not only relevant but also give us a toolbox to think seriously about ourselves and the world.”[6]

The prospect of thinking seriously about ourselves and the world is what drew me and most of the humanists I know into the profession. We were convinced that ideas matter in the everyday world. We believe that the humanities are valuable because their study deepens our capacity to sort out the meaning of our experience.  

I know this in a very particular way. Returning from the Vietnam War during the turbulence of the late 1960s, the humanities offered me a way of thinking through the questions I had about what I had witnessed. What I found in the humanities was perspective and meaning. Since coming to NEH, I’ve discovered that other, more recent combat veterans have been affected in a similar way through their involvement in NEH-supported veterans’ programs.   

A more engaged and public-facing humanities profession will be good for the country as well. For most of the great challenges we face as a nation, the challenges that define our times and determine our future, are not essentially scientific or technical in nature. They are about our values, our fundamental beliefs and ideas and assumptions, our histories and our cultures. These are the proper domains of humanities learning and thinking. The public-facing humanities can help us understand where we’ve been, what we value and believe, and where we’re headed.

By way of example, and at the risk of being a bit too topical and slightly provocative, consider the scorching experience we have been through in the last few months in this country regarding the issue of race. This is hardly a new topic in modern American life and history, but it’s one that appeared to some, for a brief time, to have become less pressing. It’s hard to believe now, but recall that in the wake of the election of 2008, some people even spoke of a post-racial society.

Then came Ferguson, Staten Island, and Bedford-Stuyvesant. It’s not clear how this difficult passage, and the broader conditions from which it comes, will be resolved, and what exactly resolution might mean. But I think most people would agree that there can be no adequate understanding of our current situation without a better appreciation of the history of race relations in the United States, of our cultural assumptions and divisions, and of the ways in which we actually live in and perceive the world. Plenty of work there for historians, ethnographers, and social philosophers, among others; plenty of ground for reflection and questioning for us all.

We will be helped in that reflection by the NEH-funded film series Created Equal, which includes Stanley Nelson’s masterful portrayals of milestone moments in the civil rights movement, Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer

I could use other examples, but I think you see my point. We need the forms of understanding and knowledge embodied in the humanities—historical knowledge, cultural knowledge, emotional and psychological knowledge—because they illuminate the conditions of our lives and insert us more deeply into our own experience. The result is not the sudden disappearance of the things that vex us, but a deeper understanding of who we are, how we got here, and how we might lead better lives.  

Words like “insight” and “understanding” and “illumination” make some people short-tempered. “That’s exactly what’s wrong with the humanities,” I can hear the grumpy anti-humanist say; “They never get to the bottom of things.” That’s true, if by the bottom of things we mean “the end,” as in a cure for disease. If we’re honest with ourselves about how we live, in our personal lives and with others, we know that we never get to the bottom of things in this sense. But sometimes we get wiser.

This is not to undervalue other forms of knowledge and other truths on which we depend—STEM, for instance. The progress of science and technology is enormously important to all of us and to the country. And so we have reasonably invested a great deal of energy and resources in the advancement of STEM—in government, in education, and in the private sector. But as we do so, we must keep the importance of other investments firmly in mind, especially our investment in the humanities. Not just because they are the source of great beauty and pleasure, which they are, but because we depend on these forms of knowledge just as surely as we depend on scientific knowledge.  

The National Endowment for the humanities will certainly continue its investments—in humanities research, in education, in public programs of all kinds, in the preservation of cultural and historical materials, in the digital humanities, in institution-building, and in state and local humanities organizations. And the cultural capital of the country will continue to expand as a result—in major cultural institutions in large cities, in small community libraries and museums, in historical sites, in colleges and universities and in high schools, and in the work of humanities scholars.

And by way of The Common Good, we’ll also make a difference by encouraging humanities scholars and organizations to think and speak about matters of genuine importance in the public world, where humanities learning and skills and habits of minds will lead to meaningful insights.

You can make a difference, too. If I’m right that the humanities are central to the preservation of our cultural legacy and history and to our capacity to address the challenges we face as a nation, then they are everyone’s business, everyone’s responsibility. We need to defend and promote them, and we need to support the institutions in which they live and flourish.

NEH will celebrate its centenary in 2065. Most of us won’t be around to learn how the next 50 years have gone and how an additional $5 billion—and I hope more—will have contributed to our country’s cultural resources and capacity. But some future chair will be speaking to the humanities community and its friends about the impact of 50 more years of leadership and grant-making, and I am certain that the report will be worth hearing.

In the meantime, thank you for coming today and for your interest in the important work and future of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


[1] National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, 20 U.S.C. § 952

[2] Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

[3] National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, 20 U.S.C. § 952 (a). 

[4] History of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Nov.’64-Jan.’69. Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Humanities, 1969.

[5] Cited by Walter Isaacson in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004

[6] Nicholas Kristof, “Don’t Dismiss the Humanities,” The New York Times, August 15, 2014.