I have been working for a few years on a project about the history of race relations in Jacksonville, Illinois. Unlike the surrounding towns, and most of the country, Jacksonville’s residents promoted very progressive ideas about racial equality since the town’s founding in 1825. Jacksonville was nationally known in the 19th century for liberal race relations, for promotion of women’s education, and for its concentration of educational institutions and intellectual achievement. During the 20th century, Jacksonville’s fading significance buried these remarkable achievements in forgetfulness. I hope to rediscover what made this little town on the frontier so unusual.
To support this local historical project, I applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The NEH is a federal agency that supports humanities projects in every state, meaning projects in history, literature, law, and other fields which fulfill the general guidelines of the law which created it in 1965: “the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history”. In that legislation, the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act, which also created the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Congress offered some basic ideas about the nature of our democracy.
“The Congress hereby finds and declares – (1) that the encouragement and support of national progress and scholarship in the humanities and the arts, while primarily a matter for private and local initiative, is also an appropriate matter of concern to the Federal Government; (2) that a high civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone but must give full value and support to the other great branches of man’s scholarly and cultural activity; (3) that democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens ...; (4) that it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to complement, assist, and add to programs for the advancement of the humanities and the arts by local, state, regional, and private agencies and their organizations; (5) that ... it is necessary and appropriate for the Federal Government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent”.
The budget of the NEH totals about $150 million per year. Adjusted for inflation, that amount has been stable for the past 20 years, through Democratic and Republican Presidents and Congresses. About $43 million of that total goes yearly to the humanities councils of the 50 states, to distribute as they wish. Spending for the NEH costs each American less than 50 cents a year.
What do we get for that? The NEH website lists the most famous recipients, who won Pulitzer prizes and whose books were published with great fanfare. Most grants go to lesser known people. In Illinois, 14 faculty received grants in 2016 to support their research for one year. Money was given to the Chicago History Museum, the American Institute of Indian Studies, and the Field Museum of Natural History. Like many small and mid-sized museums across the country, the Elmhurst Historical Museum got $1000 to bring a traveling exhibitions to small-town America. The Naperville Heritage Society received support for a local history project.
I once served on a panel to decide NEH awards for history projects. We read many detailed applications, then met to find consensus on the best. That meant those applications for the most interesting projects where applicants appeared most likely to carry them to completion. Politics meant nothing, only quality of application.
The budget proposal made last week by the Trump administration completely eliminates funding for the NEH and the NEA. The Defense Department plans to buy over 2000 new F-35 supersonic warplanes in the coming decades and just announced an agreement with Lockheed Martin for 90 of these jets at $95 million per plane. Just one and half of these planes would pay the entire NEH budget.
The budget proposal foresees a $2 billion down payment on the border wall against Mexico. There are many estimates for total cost of the Wall. Senator Mitch McConnell says $12 to $15 billion, while a Department of Homeland Security internal report puts the cost at over $20 billion. Taking even the conservative estimate, those funds would keep the NEH in business for 100 years.
But this is not really about money. Conservative politicians have opposed using federal funds to support the humanities and the arts since the beginning. In 1965, Democrats overwhelmingly voted to create the NEH and the NEA, with nearly all of the Democratic “no” votes coming from the South. A majority of Republicans voted “no”.
Conservative Republican politicians don’t believe that “democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens”. They attack the findings of geology, evolutionary biology, and climate science. They support the spread of fake news and promote alternative facts. They disparage the media in general. There is nothing new about the attacks on truth and knowledge by the Trump administration except its shamelessness.
Let’s go back to the words of the Congress in 1965, a time when Americans also wanted our country to be great. “The world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation’s high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit”.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 21, 2017