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Bonfire of the humanities

The National Endowment for the Humanities is in danger of losing its mission as the premier - and essential - source of support for humanities research.

Under pressure from Congress, the NEH's shrinking resources are going to more popular pursuits, such as movie-making, creation of state encyclopedias (a hit on Capitol Hill), and establishment of "popular culture" centers.

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In the process, it is neglecting its core goal of the past 35 years: to support fundamental research, preserve scholarly materials and the sources that document the American past, and support educators who teach the humanities.

The United States leads the world in many areas of history, literature, musicology, art criticism, philosophy, linguistics, archaeology, history of science, and anthropology. That achievement is now in peril.

In our own cases, well-timed grants were essential to our intellectual development. A critical NEH collaborative grant permitted Professor Rotberg to do research in South Africa and Zimbabwe, and resulted in a large biography of Cecil Rhodes, the diamond digger, imperialist, and scholarship provider.

Professor Howell's several grants from sources outside the NEH (which are no longer available) enabled her to plumb difficult archives in Western Europe and, after giving birth to twins, to produce a major book on women and patriarchy in late medieval cities.

None of Ken Burns's superb documentaries - "The Civil War," "Baseball," "Jazz" - could have been produced without the underlying scholarship that comes from NEH support.

Compounding the problem, funding from private and university/college sources for learning and preservation in the humanities is also eroding.

In the 1995 fiscal year, the NEH's overall budget was $172 million and the portions devoted to nurturing scholarship and preservation of research materials amounted to about $48 million. That supported 218 year-long fellowships, about 193 summer grants, modest sums for the microfilming of brittle newspapers, and adequate monies for editing projects, including the cherished editions of the Founding Fathers' papers.

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In contrast, in the 2001 fiscal year, the endowment receives $120 million, and only $30 million is available for research, archival preservation, and teacher development. That means only 176 fellowships, 130 summer stipends, big cuts in support for archival preservation, and almost no funding for critical editing.

The numbers tell the story. A diminished portion of the nation's educators are able to pursue new research, take time from teaching to reinvigorate themselves intellectually, or invest the time to add to the nation's scholarship.

In 1980, the NEH received one-fifth as many congressionally appropriated dollars as the National Science Foundation. By 1997, NEH was receiving 1/33rd as much money as the NSF. In 2001, the NSF budget is $4.4 billion, 45 times that of the NEH.

There are two remedies:

1. Congress could appropriate an inflation-adjusted amount of $200 million to the NEH (using 1995 as a baseline), and allocate $75 million of that for the endowment's core mission. That would still leave ample amounts for the NEH's public outreach, for moviemaking and encyclopedias, and even for regional centers. That $200 million is far less than the cost of one military helicopter or the annual cost of the US Army marching band.

2. The NEH could redistribute its own funds back to the core. Instead of spending $13 million a year on movies and other public performances, a contemplated $21 million on encyclopedias over several years, and a requested $50 million on regional centers over five years, some of those monies could go for fellowships and summer stipends.

These and other ways of "satisfying the broader claims of the humanities in the US" - to quote the NEH's chairman - are all worthy, but the NEH ought not to devote scarce resources to projects capable of being funded by other means. If those who produce the primary materials on which filmmakers, museum curators, and even preservationists depend are no longer nourished or supported, future generations will starve.

President Bush has made education a first priority of his administration. First lady Laura Bush has expressed her own appreciation for books and learning. Surely, one good way to fulfill the president's promises for the American people is to persuade Congress and the NEH leadership to recommit themselves to core values in the humanities.

Robert I. Rotberg and Martha Howell served as presidential appointees on the Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1993 through 2000. Professor Rotberg is director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and president of the World Peace Foundation. Professor Howell teaches history at Columbia University.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor