House Appropriations Committee Testimony, March 1998

(March 12, 1998)

Testimony of William R. Ferris on March 12, 1998 before the House Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations, chaired by Congressman Ralph Regula, R, OH.

Mr. Chairman and Committee Members:

I am deeply honored to appear before this distinguished Committee as the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. I can assure you that I share this Committee's abiding interest in the Endowment's important mission, and I look forward to working with you over the coming months and years to add to NEH's remarkable record of achievement and service to the American people.

I come before you today to testify on behalf of the Endowment's fiscal year 1999 budget request. We at the Endowment are, of course, greatly pleased that President Clinton has demonstrated his continuing commitment to the agency by requesting an appropriation of $136 million for NEH for the coming fiscal year. Although this is an amount that would increase our funding substantially over the current year's budget of $110.7 million, it is a sum that would still be significantly lower than the $172 million appropriated for FY 1995. Before turning to a discussion of specific aspects of our budget request, however, I would like briefly to discuss with you some of my plans and visions for the Endowment.

Throughout my entire professional career as a teacher, scholar, and administrator, I have been a strong supporter of NEH, an institution that I am convinced makes immense contributions to the educational and cultural life of our nation. To a certain extent, my career also illustrates the important role the Endowment plays in nurturing scholarship, education, preservation, and public programming in the humanities across the country. Please allow me a moment to explain.

Over the years, I have applied to virtually every NEH grant division, and I have been fortunate to win grants from a number of them. As a young scholar and teacher fresh from my doctoral studies in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and as a professor, first at Jackson State College in Mississippi, then at Yale University, and finally at the University of Mississippi, grants from NEH helped me focus and deepen my teaching and research interests in the culture and folkways of the American South. Later, along with my colleagues at the University of Mississippi, I was successful in winning funding from the Endowment to help establish the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and then to use the Center to administer a broad range of humanities programs concerned with the history and culture of the South. With NEH funding, the Center was able to establish an undergraduate degree program in Southern Studies, to research and publish the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, to conduct seminars for teachers on the literature of William Faulkner, to renovate an antebellum observatory on the Ole Miss campus to use as the Center's main facility, and to sponsor humanities programs for general audiences. Moreover, because NEH's peer review system of assessing the quality of grant applications is nationally recognized and respected, the Endowment's grants also acted as a "seal of approval" that helped us to attract additional money from corporations, foundations, and other funders.

Over my career, I have also had the pleasure of working with several of the state humanities councils -- which, as you know, work in tandem with NEH to bring the humanities to all Americans. I have a deep appreciation of the important cultural and educational role the state councils play, and I look forward to continuing my close association with them during my chairmanship.

The Center for the Study of Southern Culture is a dream that has been realized, and it could not have been realized without the support of NEH. Make no mistake: The Endowment was absolutely crucial in helping an institution from a predominantly rural state such as Mississippi build enduring world-class humanities programs that reach a broad spectrum of citizens -- students, scholars, and the public alike. This is a story that I intend to tell repeatedly during my tenure as Chairman, and it is an outcome I will try to replicate elsewhere in the nation as much as possible.

Now, as the Chairman of NEH, I would like to draw on my nearly two decades of experience as director of a center concerned with the study of the South to assist colleagues at other institutions throughout the nation in developing comprehensive humanities programs focused on the culture and heritage of their regions. I have found that people everywhere define themselves, at least in part, through the places where they are born, where they grow up, and where they live. It is this relationship -- which the writer Eudora Welty calls "sense of place" -- that shapes each of us in deep and lasting ways. As President Clinton also reminded the nation recently in his State of the Union address: "Our culture lives in every community, and every community has places of historic value that tell our stories as Americans."

The Endowment will help the people of the United States learn more about the special heritage of where they live and to reaffirm their common bonds as Americans by setting in motion a new, broad-based initiative -- called Rediscovering America Through the Humanities. As we discussed in our budget submission, this initiative will employ a variety of formats and will involve all programming areas of NEH. Its primary component, for which we are requesting $5 million in start-up funds in FY 1999, is a special grant competition for projects to establish regional humanities centers around the country. Each of these centers will be encouraged to support a wide array of activities -- education, research, programs for public audiences, preservation -- that bring the disciplines of the humanities to bear in exploring the region's distinctive culture. In developing their programs and resources, centers will also be expected to place special emphasis on technology to assure maximum access and impact. We hope that each center that is established will ultimately serve as a kind of "cultural hub" for its region; in this way, the center will help to broaden citizens' awareness of, access to, and participation in the humanities -- overarching goals that I particularly wish to pursue during my tenure as NEH Chairman.

In framing this initiative, I have sought the advice of many people within the humanities community, including, most importantly, the National Council on the Humanities, the state humanities councils, and the superb staff of the Endowment. In addition, I plan to convene a small group of scholars who have studied this subject closely to share their knowledge with us. I also would greatly appreciate any suggestions the members of this Committee have that will help the Endowment's new initiative to prosper.

We realize, of course, that NEH cannot and should not be the sole source of support for such an ambitious effort. This is why I am insisting that the initiative move forward as a public- private partnership. We plan to work in close partnership with the state humanities councils, as well as with public and nonprofit institutions and foundations, and with the private sector to create a network of vibrant humanities centers in every region of the nation.

In addition to establishing regional humanities centers, there are a number of other special program activities that will be a part of Rediscovering America Through the Humanities. The objective of all the initiative's activities is to encourage Americans to observe the dawning of a new millennium by rediscovering the nation's history and culture and by preserving this rich heritage for the benefit of future generations. Among the program emphases planned for FY 1999 that I would like to call to your attention are:

  • American Legacy Editions, a special effort in our Research and Education division that will ensure the survival of scholarly projects that are preparing documentary editions of the papers and writings of a number of the nation's Presidents as well as other important historical and literary figures. Because of drastic cuts in funding for NEH over the last three years, the agency was forced to deny grants to many worthy editions projects. American Legacy Editions is designed to double the amount of funding we are currently able to provide for such projects;
  • Schools for a New Millennium, a special grant competition in our Education Development and Demonstration program that will help schools and their teachers become more competent in incorporating new electronic humanities materials and technologies into their classrooms;
  • My History is America's History, a special project that will encourage Americans of all ages to commemorate the turning of a new century and a new millennium by rediscovering their family's history and linking this history to the broader sweep of events and trends in American and world history;
  • Great Books in the Humanities, a special emphasis in our Public Programs and Enterprise division that will support a high quality, ongoing series of programs on public television featuring great works of literature. NEH-funded reading and discussion programs in libraries would be supported to complement the television broadcasts; and
  • A special emphasis in the Endowment's Preservation and Access division in support of projects to digitize important materials held by the nation's museums, libraries, archives, and historical organizations.

These special Rediscovering America programming emphases will complement our regular programs and operations. I am absolutely committed to sustaining and increasing support for NEH's core humanities programs. Indeed, the Endowment's $136 million budget request is designed to begin the process of breathing some vital new fiscal life into these important federal programs, which have not recovered from the devastating reductions that were inflicted on them three years ago.

While I have always been aware of the range of NEH's grant programs, since becoming Chairman I have had the opportunity to observe the work of these programs from a different perspective and to see firsthand the remarkable breadth and depth of the projects they support. As this Committee is well aware, NEH's core grant programs are time-tested vehicles for enabling high quality humanities projects to take place across the nation, projects that enrich our educational and cultural life and that benefit citizens in every state of the union. Noteworthy humanities projects that annual Congressional appropriations for the Endowment make possible include:

  • Public education projects and programs sponsored by the 56 state humanities councils that annually reach millions of Americans from all walks of life in school auditoriums; museums and libraries; community centers and court houses; church and grange halls; and on college campuses. Appropriations for NEH's Federal/State Partnership with the state humanities councils have also recently supported a number of innovative state council projects to develop reading and discussion programs for newly literate adults and their children;
  • Opportunities for school teachers and college teachers to improve their instruction in the humanities, such as the fifteen school teachers from across the country who will be spending four weeks this summer attending a seminar at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, on the poetry of William Wordsworth and John Keats, and the 20 elementary school teachers from Chicago's public schools who are attending a series of seminars this school year on how to use high quality children's literature to help their students develop a love of reading. The thousands of school teachers and college teachers who participate in NEH seminars and institutes such as these reach hundreds of thousands of American students each year in rural, inner-city, and other classrooms throughout the nation. The summer of 1998 will mark the 25th anniversary of NEH's pathbreaking summer seminars for college teachers program and the 15th anniversary of the summer seminars for school teachers program, both of which have had an enduring impact on the quality of humanities education offered to the nation's students;
  • Collected editions of the papers, writings, and other materials of historically significant figures and events important to our cultural heritage. In FY 1997, NEH funds supported the preparation of editions of the papers of George Washington, the Adams Family (which include the papers of "First Lady" Abigail Adams), Andrew Jackson, and Dwight Eisenhower. Recent NEH funding has also made possible the preparation of editions of the papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the history of the First Federal Congress (1789-1791), and four volumes of the Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts. (As noted previously, because of significant budget cuts for NEH, the Endowment is no longer able to support many of these projects. Our $136 million FY 1999 budget request will permit us to implement a special initiative -- American Legacy Editions -- that will increase the funding we are now able to provide and ensure the continuation of these important projects.)
  • Educational television documentaries that reach millions of Americans of diverse social, cultural, and economic backgrounds in all areas of the nation, such as last fall's highly acclaimed six-part PBS series, Liberty!: The American Revolution, which traced the birth of our nation from the growing tensions and eventual break with Great Britain to the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. The Endowment also was chiefly responsible for the "The Presidents" series on PBS's popular "The American Experience" program, which recently rebroadcast twelve thought-provoking documentaries on notable American Presidents. Liberty and "The Presidents" join other illustrious media presentations NEH has made possible over the years, ranging from Ken Burns's epics, The Civil War and Baseball, to portraits of such important Americans as Frederick Douglass, Andrew Carnegie, Charles Lindbergh, and George C. Marshall;
  • Projects to preserve and increase the availability of important cultural and intellectual resources held by the nation's libraries, museums, and archives, such as FY 1997 funding that was provided to the Southeastern Library Network (SOLINET) in Atlanta in support of a major cooperative brittle book microfilming project involving 14 university libraries (East Carolina, Emory, Kentucky, North Carolina Central, North Carolina State, Tulane, Florida, Georgia, Maryland Eastern Shore, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Florida, and the University of the South), the Georgia Department of Archives and History, and the State Library of Florida. Over the years, NEH-supported preservation and access projects have microfilmed more than 773,000 embrittled volumes and 57 million pages of historically significant newspapers and have stabilized the condition of over 28 million objects of archaeological, ethnographic, and historical importance;
  • Innovative humanities projects employing the new electronic information technologies, such as the new EDSITEment website, which the Endowment launched last fall in partnership with the MCI Corporation and the Council of Great City Schools, that is providing teachers, students, and parents with immediate electronic access to the best humanities education materials on the World Wide Web. NEH is also helping educators introduce into the nation's classrooms high quality websites and CD-ROMs on diverse humanities subjects such as a project at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, to develop a multimedia database on the history of the Supreme Court and a project at the University of Virginia on the history of the American Civil War. Another recent NEH grant, to the Denver Public Library, is helping to catalog and digitize thousands of important photographs on the history of the American West;
  • Educational museum exhibitions for broad public audiences that examine significant themes and ideas in the humanities, such as the recent opening at the Oakland Museum of California of Gold Fever! The Lure and Legacy of the California Gold Rush and the major traveling exhibition, Barn Again: Celebrating an American Icon, which examines the forces that have shaped the American farmstead and the relationship between country and city. With major funding from NEH and spearheaded by the Utah Humanities Council in cooperation with a number of humanities councils in the Northwest, Midwest, and the South, Barn Again is being presented at thirty-two small rural museums in Alabama, Georgia, Oregon, Ohio, West Virginia, Illinois, Utah, and Missouri;
  • Research and scholarship that expand our knowledge and understanding of the past, such as Stanford University professor Jack Rakove's recent book, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution, which won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize in history; and the research that led to discovery by an NEH-supported team of archaeologists of the remains of the early seventeenth-century fort at Jamestown, Virginia -- the first permanent English settlement in America; and
  • Stimulation of private donations to humanities projects and institutions, such as a recent $325,000 Challenge Grant to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, to endow a professorship in classics and an annual classics lecture series and a Challenge Grant to the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage in Zuni, New Mexico, that is helping to endow humanities research and programming at this Zuni tribal museum. Over the years, NEH Challenge Grants, which require $3 or $4 in donations for every dollar awarded to a humanities institution, have attracted more than $1.2 billion in private gifts; another $343 million has been raised in one-to-one matches for specific humanities projects supported by our other grant programs.

I am proud to be associated now with projects of such substance and significance as these, and I pledge that in fiscal 1999 and in the years ahead the Endowment will strive to add to this distinguished record of achievement and service to the nation. We will work particularly hard to encourage projects and programs that have the capacity to reach people in towns, communities, and other areas of the country who currently may have limited access to quality humanities programming. Expanding the geographic and demographic breadth of NEH's grants will be a central theme of our efforts.

In closing, I would like to return once again to my vision of the future for both the Endowment and the humanities. Briefly put, I hope that when I finish my work at NEH "the humanities" will have become an everyday word to millions of Americans, that every American will know about the work of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and that they will feel that they are better off for having this important agency of the federal government working on their behalf to advance the nation's educational and cultural well-being. Our plans for the coming fiscal year -- the regional humanities centers, the Rediscovering America program emphases, the strengthening of our core grant programs -- are the first steps in making these visions a reality.

But I need your help. And so, I must also return to the issue of money. As you know, as small as NEH's budget is, it is still the single largest source of funding for the humanities in the United States. While I plan to work actively to secure private and non-federal support for our plans and initiatives, we must not underestimate the critical nature of the federal role in helping the humanities to grow and thrive throughout the United States. It continues to be very much worth the nation's investment to keep this federal effort going at as high a level as possible.

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