Gilbert: NEH At 50
Fifty years ago this fall, federal legislation established the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was created for many reasons, including these three: Because “the arts and humanities belong to all the people.” Because “an advanced civilization [embraces not only] science and technology [but also] other …scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.” And, finally, because “democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens.” Perhaps in a monarchy, the humanities could be the purview solely of the elite. But in a democracy, citizens choose not only their leaders, but also their party's nominees, by voting, and so they need the knowledge, wisdom, and vision to choose wisely. Moreover, all Americans, not just a few, should enjoy their national heritage and the rich and varied cultures of the world. And, if citizens generally don’t have a passing understanding of issues that are important to national security and our general well-being, we shouldn’t assume our leaders will.
At its beginning, the focus of the NEH was on scholarship - research in the humanities to help us better understand important events and issues. That enhanced understanding can come to the fore in myriad, unpredictable ways: for example, as an article by the Chairman of the NEH pointed out recently, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in the Supreme Court case on gay marriage cited three scholarly works about the history of marriage; the authors of two of them had been supported with NEH fellowships.
The NEH has also preserved priceless documents, like the papers of Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, and Willa Cather. It’s run thousands of institutes for professors and high school teachers. It’s supported exhibits in museums small and large, like the famous “King Tut” exhibit; it’s funded documentary films, including those of Ken Burns, which have contributed dramatically to helping ensure that our past is a shared past. And, in part through a state humanities council in every state and territory, it’s brought the humanities to countless millions of Americans in great cities and rural villages nationwide.
A half-century after the founding of the NEH, we need the humanities perhaps more than ever. We need them as much as we need science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, for many reasons, but in part so that, as the NEH’s founding legislation stated, American citizens are “masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.”