Q&A with David Bromwich: 50 years of the National Endowment for the Humanities

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(Image courtesty of the National Endowment for the Humanities)

Fifty years ago today President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965. The law created the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), providing the United States with its first national cultural agency. The aim of the NEH was to preserve the country’s history and cultural heritage, and encourage and support scholarship and innovation in humanities disciplines including history, archaeology, philosophy, and literature.

In the past 50 years, the NEH has issued more than 63,000 grants totaling more than $5 billion, including an additional $2.5 billion in matching grants for humanities research, public programs, education, and preservation projects.

David Bromwich ’73, ’77 Ph.D., Sterling Professor of English, recently spoke with YaleNews about the anniversary of the NEH and why the study of the humanities is so important today. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

Why were the humanities important 50 years ago when the National Endowment for the Humanities was founded?

The humanities, or “arts and letters” as they used to be called, have always been important to education. The formation of the NEH as institutional support for the humanities came in 1965 — the high watermark of American belief in the good of liberal education.

The first grant that the NEH issued was in 1966 to the American Society of Papyrologists to conduct a summer institute in papyrology at Yale. (Image courtesty of the National Endowment for the Humanities)

Why is the study of the humanities still important today?

The study of the past deepens the possibilities of self-knowledge, and, whether from the point of view of an individual life or the life of a culture, the past is a resource for thinking about the present and the future.

How has the NEH evolved over the past 50 years?

It has sometimes reflected the passing trends of academic research in history, literature, and other fields, but mostly has taken a longer view.

How does studying the humanities enrich students’ education?

The great works of art, literature, and philosophy to which humanistic study can be a guide are interesting in themselves. They carry their own justification to those who come to know them well. 

What led you to focus your research and scholarship on the humanities?

The teachers I had the luck to take courses with — especially in the field of literature —and the writers I read and reread: Shakespeare, Milton, Whitman, Dickinson, and Melville, among others.

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