Defending the Humanities on Capitol Hill

Last year, Yale University lost a devastating 90 percent of its National Endowment for the Humanities funding. During fiscal year 1995, the NEH had granted Yale $3 million for research, book preservation, and other projects. In 1996 that figure dropped to $284,000. The numbers for the State of Connecticut follow a similar pattern: Connecticut received $10 million in NEH funding in 1995, but only $5 million in 1996 – a loss of 50 percent. Nationwide, the NEH budget went down 36 percent during the same period, from a total budget of $172 million to $110 million.

In an effort to reverse that trend, about 200 scholars representing all the disciplines within the humanities are converging on Washington on Thursday, May 8, for a day-long lobbying effort called “Humanities on the Hill. Among them will be four Connecticut delegates, three of them from Yale.

They are Peter Brooks, Tripp Professor of Humanities and acting director of the Whitney Humanities Center; Barbara Oberg, editor of “The Papers of Benjamin Franklin” and senior research scholar of history; and Richard Jacob, director of federal relations for the Office of the General Counsel. They will be accompanied by Bruce Fraser, executive director of the Connecticut Humanities Council. Professor Brooks will be representing the Modern Language Association –MLA, in addition to the university. The MLA is a 30,000-member professional organization on whose executive board he serves.

“The NEH is essentially the sole source of support for an enormous amount of activity in the humanities in Connecticut, both academic and public,” says Mr. Fraser. “A $5 million hole has just opened up in our cultural life. We are going to Washington to make the Connecticut delegation aware of the severity and disproportionate nature of the cuts.”

In 1995, the NEH made 52 grants to museums, universities, historical societies, and libraries across Connecticut. In 1996, only 14 awards were made. Among the local casualties: Connecticut Reading Connections, a program sponsoring 35-40 series of scholar-led book discussions in the public libraries.

The Yale team will meet with Congressional representatives and hear a keynote address by historian Stephen E. Ambrose on “The Friendship of Lewis and Clark.” Sheldon Hackney, chair of the NEH, will also speak.

“We should all be concerned about the declining budget for the humanities,” says Yale President Richard C. Levin. “The NEH has been essential to important projects at Yale such as seminars for continuing education of high school teachers and college faculty, original scholarship, and the preservation of rare books and museum collections. Federal funds have also made possible a wide range of cultural activities throughout the state that have engaged the public in an active discussion of our history and culture. Federal spending on the humanities in Connecticut has dropped dramatically, and a drop of that magnitude is a real threat to scholarship on university campuses and to the quality of humane and literate discourse in the public at large.”

Ms. Oberg’s goal in Washington is to advocate for the project she works on at Yale – preparing a definitive scholarly edition of the 30,000 manuscripts of Benjamin Franklin – and similar projects. “We are hoping to bring public attention to the basic research in the humanities that the NEH supports. Here at Yale, it’s the Franklin papers. It’s the Jefferson papers at Princeton, the Washington papers at the University of Virginia, and other projects documenting our national heritage, the founding of the country, and the ideals upon which it is based. Fundamental documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are being explained by this research.”

The NEH, established over 30 years ago, gives grants to colleges and universities, museums, libraries, and individual scholars in all 50 states. NEH-supported projects have had a broad impact on the civic life of the nation, funding research and scholarship on topics of national interest and improving schools and colleges through continuing education for teachers. NEH funding provides public programming and preserves brittle books and documents significant to America’s heritage. State humanities councils are funded through the Federal-State Partnership of the NEH, created in the 1970s as private, nonprofit organizations to fund and conduct programs at the state and local level.

Humanities on the Hill 1997 is sponsored by the Federation of State Humanities Councils, with the American Association of Museums, the Association of American Universities, the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, the National Humanities Alliance, and other not-for-profit organizations.

Professor Brooks sums up the point of the lobbying effort this way: “We hope to explain to people on the Hill why the National Endowment for the Humanities is important in American culture. It provides programs of a sort that private foundations and corporations cannot.”

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