Is the NEH Worth Keeping?

Daniel Geary

Winter 2018

Conservatives have long bemoaned the state of humanities education in America. For decades, scholars and commentators on the right have pointed to numerous pathologies, including the prevalence of multiculturalism, postmodernism, feminism, anti-Americanism, and other "isms" in university history and literature departments, the lack of serious content in K-12 humanities curricula, and the ignorance of American history demonstrated even by elite students, among other issues. While overcoming these problems entirely may be more than we should hope for, it is still possible — and perhaps all the more urgent — to nurture the bright spots in American universities and cultural institutions, as well as to start new efforts that advance civic education and liberal learning. With the election of President Trump, and the chance to appoint a new chairman, the National Endowment for the Humanities presents an opportunity to do just that — provided Republicans resist the temptation to eliminate the agency.

This past March, the Trump administration released its budget plan, which proposed terminating both the National Endowment for the Arts and the NEH, along with eliminating funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney described the plan as a "hard-power budget," focused on increasing funding for defense and homeland security, while cutting discretionary programs. "Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs? The answer was no," Mulvaney explained. "We can ask them to pay for defense...but we can't ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting." The decision no doubt also reflected the widely held conservative belief that the arts and humanities have been taken over by the left; the NEA, in particular, is viewed as wasteful, burning taxpayer money on tendentious, even scandalous art exhibitions while contributing little to public life in general. The NEA and the NEH are often lumped together in conservative minds as one ridiculous waste of funds.

A month after the budget announcement, in the online journal American Greatness, University of Texas at Austin philosophy professor Robert Koons and New Criterion editor Roger Kimball presented competing arguments for mending versus ending the NEH. Koons argued for preserving the agency, though with systemic changes. In particular, he recommended that the NEH establish National Humanities Honors Examinations for high-school and college seniors to test students' knowledge about Western Civilization. Students who earn high scores on the exams would gain admission to the colleges and graduate schools of their choice; teachers whose students score highly would gain tenure-track appointments at nearby colleges and later promotions. Kimball argued for outright elimination.

Though Koons and Kimball disagree on whether to preserve or terminate the agency, they share the view that the NEH is problematic because of corruption within the humanities themselves. According to Koons, "The fundamental problem with the NEH as presently constituted is the peer-review system by which it disseminates research grants." Because peer review involves using professors to evaluate applications, and because the vast majority of the professoriate is ideologically progressive, the use of peer review becomes suspect — hence Koons's call for "refocusing [the NEH] exclusively on undergraduate and high-school education" and implementing a new program of honors examinations. Kimball, similarly, argued that both the NEA and NEH are "captives of the cultural Left and no new Chairman, be he the reincarnation of Pericles, can do anything about that." Moreover, "[t]he oft-told litany of pathological, anti-American garbage supported by the Endowments can never be effectively countered until the character of elite culture changes." (Kimball, it should be noted, also argued on principle that the NEH and NEA should be abolished because they "represent an illegitimate extension of federal power.")

Though the NEH has funded some questionable and tendentious work in the past, both Koons's and Kimball's assessments belie the potential of a good chairman to make the NEH live up to its high ideals, even in the absence of major institutional reform — let alone alongside such changes. While Kimball acknowledges that past chairmen of the NEA and NEH "did some good," he contends that they "left the malevolent core to the institutions untouched." Kimball writes, "The Endowments are staffed by exactly the sort of bureaucratic swamp dwellers that Donald Trump came to Washington to drain." The history of the NEH, however, shows that the agency's career bureaucrats do not pose an insurmountable obstacle to a chairman's agenda, even if they may not agree with it.

Based on the experiences of the NEH under the last several Republican administrations, no major systemic changes are necessary for the NEH to support the humanities in edifying ways. All that is necessary is a chairman who has a clear view of the value of the humanities, takes the role seriously, and is supported by a similarly disposed National Council on the Humanities. Past Republican-appointed chairmen have demonstrated how this can work, and have allowed the NEH to make valuable contributions to American intellectual and public life.

In the last fiscal year, the NEH received just under $148 million, a tiny fraction of the federal budget of $4 trillion. While some may argue that the NEH mission would be better served if funded by private philanthropy, it is not clear that it would be, or that private funds would be more likely to be used toward advancing classical, liberal education. Republican administrations in particular have found the endowment a helpful tool for supporting the civic education required for a healthy democracy, and the Trump administration now has the opportunity to use the NEH as it was meant to be used: as a true friend of both civic education and liberal learning. It would be a shame to squander that opportunity.


The NEH is essentially a federal foundation charged with making grants that support work in the humanistic disciplines, such as history, philosophy, literature, archaeology, and classical and modern languages. The president appoints a chairman, who is then confirmed by the Senate to serve a four-year term. The chairman is advised by the National Council on the Humanities, a 26-member group of private citizens who serve staggered six-year terms; council members are also appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

In 2016, excluding administrative costs, the NEH's grant-making budget was approximately $121 million. Roughly 60% of that is spread across program divisions that award grants in areas such as research, education, public programs, and preservation. Within those broad categories, the main grant recipients have been colleges and universities, research libraries, public libraries, museums, archives, independent research organizations, public television stations, historical societies, and other cultural groups. The other 40% of the NEH's grant budget is distributed to the state humanities councils (SHCs), nonprofit affiliates founded by the agency in the 1970s in all 50 states, American territories, and the District of Columbia. SHCs carry out primarily public programming, often in conjunction with local organizations. Arguably the best-known project supported by the NEH has been The Civil War, the 1990 TV documentary miniseries directed by Ken Burns.

The NEH and NEA were founded in 1965 at the height of the Great Society. Though this period has been called the high tide of liberalism, the content of the Great Society cultural agenda was classical or traditionalist by today's standards, inspired partly by concerns about the fate of high culture in mass society. At their inception, neither the NEA nor the NEH was justified primarily in terms of economic development, jobs for unemployed artists and writers, or even civic education. At times, advocates for founding the NEH could be downright Tocquevillian in their rhetoric, presenting the arts and humanities as ballast for modern democracy, balancing its excesses, materialism, and unreflective zeal for technological progress in particular. As the original statement of purpose of the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 boldly declared, "[A] high civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone." It continued, "[D]emocracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens....[I]t must therefore foster and support a form of education designed to make men masters of their technology and not its unthinking servant."

In service of that goal, the NEA and the NEH were founded to provide federal support for artists and scholars, and were modelled largely after the National Science Foundation. Each endowment has its own system for awarding grants, but peer review is at the heart of both. At the NEH, during each grant cycle, the staff of the endowment assembles panels of outside reviewers, experts in their fields who grade applications on their merits and then convene in Washington to discuss and refine their evaluations. It is then up to the staff to make a list of projects to recommend for funding. The staff sends write-ups on the projects it thinks should be funded or declined to the National Council on the Humanities for review.

The National Council on the Humanities has, since the 1970s, made advising on grant applications its primary function. When the council convenes in Washington for each grant cycle, it divides into committees corresponding to the NEH program divisions. Prior to each meeting, council members have the opportunity to flag projects and request the original applications in full. During committee meetings, council members can question division staff about various projects and have the opportunity to reverse the staff's recommendations if they choose. (Republicans, it should be noted, have a history of appointing to the council elite scholars in their respective fields, who can rigorously assess the work of the panels and the staff.)

Critics of the NEH, such as Koons and Kimball, have argued that, because of progressive trends in the humanities and the political ideology of the career staff, the agency can be expected to fund tendentious, even unpatriotic projects. Many of the NEH's grant programs, however, are of an apolitical nature. The Division of Preservation and Access, for example, sponsors programs in areas such as the digitization of historic newspapers, documentation of endangered languages, and preservation of books, manuscripts, photographs, sound recordings, and historic artifacts. The Division of Research Programs awards grants for archaeological excavations, scholarly editions, and translations. Projects that involve a scholar's interpretation of historical, literary, or philosophical content — such as course or curriculum development, teacher-training institutes, fellowships for independent research, and public exhibitions — are, by their nature, more prone to having an ideological bent. But the NEH grant-making process is such that the politically appointed leadership can weed out ideologically charged proposals.

The advantages of the NEH grant-making process come into sharp relief when compared with that of its counterpart, the NEA, at least as it functioned in the past. While both endowments were organized under the same statute, with nearly identical language, their respective bureaucratic structures evolved differently. As a result, the chairman of the NEH has been more empowered to oversee the grant-making process. This key difference became more apparent after the NEA was engulfed in controversy in the late 1980s, following revelations that agency funds had supported highly contentious and, to many, offensive exhibitions. The scandal was such that Congress, in response, established an Independent Commission to audit the NEA and its process for awarding grants.

The NEA's main problem, according to the Independent Commission, was that the peer-review panels convened by the staff to evaluate applications had come to dominate its grant-making process. The chairman, the National Council on the Arts, and even the career staff had become marginalized in the determination of which projects to fund and at what levels. The staff were merely relaying the peer reviewers' recommendations, including award amounts, to the chairman, who effectively rubber-stamped them. The National Council on the Arts had come to concern itself primarily with advising on broader policy matters. The commission said that, while the NEA had to insist on excellence, it also had to "operate in a manner accountable to the President, Congress and the American people."

Though the Independent Commission did not say so outright, it urged the NEA to be more like the NEH in key respects — in particular, to empower the politically appointed leadership relative to the panels. To fix the NEA, the commission said that its grant-making process "must operate on the principle of checks and balances, with each tier of review having clear notions of its own responsibilities and the Chairperson having authority to make final decisions." The commission recommended that the authority of the chairman "be made explicit," and that it be understood that the chairman is "neither bound by law custom to accept the advice or recommendations given him by the National Council, grant advisory panels or staff." The staff, moreover, "must be accountable to the Chairperson rather than to the particular artistic fields or disciplines with which they work." The commission called upon the National Council on the Arts to bring its judgment to bear on the process, and to reinstate committees that would review staff recommendations and offer a set of their own recommendations to the chairman. And while the commission insisted that the NEA maintain peer review as an essential element of the application-review process, it said that panel recommendations should not become the agency's de facto decisions.

When the Independent Commission published its report, this principle of "checks and balances" was already alive and well at the NEH. In fact, some scholars called for limiting the power of the NEH chairman, who at the time was Lynne Cheney. The National Humanities Alliance (NHA), an advocacy group representing scholarly organizations, colleges, and universities, proposed making only a third of the members of the National Council on the Humanities appointed by the president, so as to limit the influence of the chairman over who was named to it (under the NHA's plan, the other two-thirds would have been appointed by Congress). Critics of Cheney also wanted the NEH to re-emphasize the importance of peer review in grant-making decisions. Stanley Katz, then president of the American Council of Learned Societies, said, "Regardless of the specific actions of this chairman, or any chairman, there is a basic flaw in the legislation: It accords the chairman too much unchecked discretionary authority for effective public accountability."

Despite the criticisms of left-leaning scholars, the NEH's bureaucratic structure for grant-making, much of which is apolitical to begin with, is sound, and in fact contributes to wise decision-making under dependable chairmen. Despite concerns from those on the right about the agency's use of peer review to evaluate applications, the bureaucratic structure empowers the agency's politically appointed leadership to weed out proposals that are frivolous or tendentious.

While peer review, to be clear, has always been at the heart of the NEH grant-making process, the peer-review panels have not dominated the process like they have at the NEA, at least under Republican administrations. Another factor that may have minimized the potential for this problem at the NEH is the agency's divisional structure. While the NEA grant programs are focused on specific artistic fields, such as dance, opera, and literature, divisions at the NEH, by contrast, correspond to project type, such as research and public programs, which accept applications from across humanistic disciplines. This structure at the NEH arguably helps promote an ethic of staff accountability to the chairman rather than to specific disciplines, which the Independent Commission indicated was a problem at the NEA. William Kristol, who profiled Reagan-appointed chairman William Bennett's leadership strategy at the NEH for a 1985 article in Policy Review, noted that Bennett "has found it possible to marshal cooperation and even support from the civil service." According to Kristol, "on the whole Mr. Bennett has found the civil service so ‘governable' that he has brought in only five or six political appointees to join a professional staff of about 250." This was likely due, in part, to the bureaucratic structure of the NEH.


Empowered by the internal structure and inclined to take advantage of the public platform that comes with the agency, past Republican-appointed chairmen such as Bill Bennett (1981-1985), Lynne Cheney (1986-1993), and Bruce Cole (2001-2009) have been forceful advocates for strengthening research, education, and public programs in the humanities, emphasizing a focus on permanent human questions, American history, and the nation's founding principles. They have shaped the discourse about education in the humanities, speaking directly to the general public in addition to scholars and educators. They have used the endowment's honors and awards to highlight humanistic excellence. And as indicated above, they have embraced the opportunities afforded by the internal structure to influence grant-making in positive ways.

NEH chairmen have led the charge in some of the most important curricular battles of the last four decades. Bennett made the first prominent case against the deterioration of curricula at many colleges and universities with the publication of the 1984 NEH report "To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education." Reported on in the popular press and the subject of academic symposia, "To Reclaim a Legacy" was an early focal point in what became the "Canon Wars." When Bennett departed the NEH to lead the Department of Education, the New York Times noted that, as chairman, "Bennett has been such a staunch advocate of the classical approach to the studies of humanities that he has stirred a loud debate not expected to be found in those staid precincts."

Cheney, upon assuming office, picked up where Bennett left off. The wife of a Wyoming congressman (and future secretary of Defense and vice president), Cheney entered office already enjoying a degree of notoriety. She also had an interest in speaking directly to the public. As chairman, Cheney issued a series of reports about the state of the humanities in America, calling attention to problems at both the K-12 and collegiate levels. In her inaugural report in 1987, "American Memory: A Report on the Humanities in the Nation's Public Schools," Cheney highlighted the loss of serious, content-rich curricula in subjects such as literature and history. In 1992, her final report, "Telling the Truth: A Report on the State of the Humanities in Higher Education," warned that colleges and universities were elevating political agendas over the pursuit of truth, describing how this trend was manifested in speech codes and the pressure that some students felt to censor their opinions in the classroom, among other problems. In the intervening years, Cheney issued four additional annual reports on issues in humanities education, relishing the role of truth teller and seeking to maximize the potential of the agency's bully pulpit.

Through its annual honors and awards, the NEH has an opportunity to highlight examples of humanistic excellence. Under Bennett, Cheney, and Cole, the Jefferson Lecture, the NEH's most prestigious honor, has been delivered by eminent scholars taking on big questions. Examples include Jaroslav Pelikan on "The Vindication of Tradition," Leszek Kolakowski on "The Idolatry of Politics," Robert Nisbet on "The Present Age and the State of Community," Donald Kagan's argument "In Defense of History," and Harvey Mansfield on "How to Understand Politics: What the Humanities Can Say to Science." National Humanities Medals, of which up to 12 are presented every year, have been given not only to scholars, but also philanthropists, public intellectuals, educational and preservation groups, and other individuals who have helped expose the broader public to the humanities. Though there have been too many to list here, recipients include legendary scholars and teachers such as Walter Berns and Eva Brann; public intellectuals including Midge Decter, Joseph Epstein, Hilton Kramer, and Myron Magnet; philanthropists such as Richard Gilder, Roger Hertog, and Lewis Lehrman; preservation organizations like the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association; and Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, a Marine Corps reservist who led an operation to recover artifacts that had been looted from the Iraq National Museum during the second Iraq War.

Past Republican-appointed chairmen have stressed themes or launched initiatives that have influenced the direction of grant-making in constructive ways. Cole's signature initiative, for example, was called "We the People." Announced by President George W. Bush in a ceremony in the Rose Garden in September 2002, a year after the 9 / 11 terrorist attacks, "We the People" was dedicated to fostering greater knowledge and understanding of American history and culture. Cole secured additional appropriations for "We the People," enabling projects such as edited volumes of the works of great Americans, including James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Frederick Douglass. "We the People" also gave rise to new initiatives, such as the Landmarks of American History and Culture program, which has sponsored teacher-training workshops for K-12 and community-college teachers at historic sites, such as Lexington and Concord, civil-rights landmarks in Alabama, Montpelier (James Madison's home in Virginia), the U.S. Capitol, and Ellis Island.

A significant difference between past Republican- and Democratic-appointed chairmen is that Republicans have embraced the prerogatives at their disposal to oversee the grant-making process. Democrats, by contrast, have been more passive and deferential to the work of the staff and division panels. As Republican-appointed chairmen have embraced the principle of checks and balances, they have been accused of "politicizing" the endowment. This charge of politicization was made, for example, surrounding reports that Cheney recommended that staff use scholars of a more conservative bent as peer reviewers. Republican-appointed chairmen have also been accused of politicizing the endowment by flagging certain proposals for review by members of the National Council on the Humanities and for stacking certain council committees with more conservative members.

Whether one views these as acts of politicization or acts of accountability depends, of course, on how one views many of the dominant trends in the humanities. Scholars who are generally supportive of multiculturalism, for example, may view such actions as tantamount to malfeasance. But for those who are concerned that much of contemporary scholarship and education in the humanities seeks to advance a progressive political agenda, Republican chairmen should be praised for depoliticizing the endowment, by keeping it focused on quality work that is not tendentious.


Indeed, one of the most important functions of the NEH is to ensure that quality work in the humanities is being funded, regardless of politics. If "democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens," then federal support of humanities research and education is a public investment in the future of our republic, and can be considered a public good.

Many do not see it this way, however, and argue that the arts and humanities should rely on private philanthropy. It is true that Americans donate considerable sums to charitable and nonprofit causes every year: approximately $390 billion in 2016. According to Giving USA, 15% of that total, or $60 billion, went to "education," which includes colleges, universities, K-12 schools, and other organizations; they estimate a further 5%, or $18 billion, went to "arts, culture, and humanities." Undoubtedly, research, education, and public programming in the humanities are supported through these donations. However, in the current cultural context, it is not just sheer dollars that are important, but how they are directed. The extent to which private philanthropy supports a more traditional approach to liberal education is not clear, and it's difficult to predict the interest private philanthropy will have in this area in the future.

Over the years, some philanthropists have worked to foster a renewal of liberal learning both on and off campus, and have invested in scholars who seek to research and teach the best of the Western intellectual tradition. Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, estimated in an article for the Federalist in May of 2017 that the entire conservative higher-education reform movement — everything from advocacy to efforts that reach students directly — represents an investment of approximately $150 million per year, at most. Though not insignificant, this represents about four one-hundredths of 1 percent of overall philanthropic giving and about three one-hundredths of 1 percent of the $536 billion America spends annually on higher education. Moreover, not all of it has to do with the liberal arts. Though liberal learning has been advanced through this giving, it is unclear how much this cause will remain a priority of conservative donors in the future. While there are always reasons to be hopeful, there may also be cause for concern.

Many philanthropists who have done much on behalf of liberal education developed their objectives or came of age in the mid-20th century, a time when global communism threatened the future of the free world. It was in 1949 that Friedrich Hayek penned his influential essay "The Intellectuals and Socialism," in which he issued a call to "make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue." In the midst of the Cold War, this idea galvanized donors such as John M. Olin, Harry Earhart, Lynde and Harry Bradley, and Pierre Goodrich, the founder of Liberty Fund. But several of the foundations set up by these donors and by others with similar goals have sunset (in the case of Olin and Earhart) or are on track to sunset in the interest of preserving donor intent and preventing mission drift. In the absence of the threat of communism and with the memory of totalitarianism fading, it may be an act of faith to assume that new donors will take their place.

Trends in the broader philanthropic world may also not bode well for the humanities, irrespective of whether they represent a canonical or multiculturalist bent. In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis on what is called "strategic philanthropy" or "effective altruism," which seeks to direct resources in ways that have the biggest impact on social and economic problems, using rigorous, quantitative performance metrics to evaluate effectiveness. Given that some of the newest big donors have made their money in the tech industry, which prizes the use of data and analytics, it is perhaps not surprising to see this approach to philanthropy gaining ground. But while strategic philanthropy may be an appropriate way to invest in some kinds of direct-service nonprofits, basing giving decisions on what will result in the most compelling metrics does not bode well for the liberal arts, whose subjects are at least partly worth studying for their own sake. This penchant for metrics and quantifiable outcomes is on the rise throughout the philanthropic world, not just among more liberal donors, so it may well affect giving for the humanities across the board.


As Republicans weigh President Trump's proposal to terminate the federal cultural agencies, they should not lose sight of what America has in the NEH — and what the nation could have with the right leadership in place. For at least the next four years, there is a chance to invest in scholars and educators who are in the humanities for the right reasons, who seek truth and beauty and want to pass on what they discover to future generations. Given the state of humanities education today, it can do nothing but help. And if colleges and universities cannot be counted on to pursue constructive reform within the humanities on their own initiative, then investing in the bright spots out there may be the best strategy at this point in time.

The NEH has the capacity to meaningfully support those pursuing such noble goals. For example, in 1983, Allan Bloom, Leon Kass, and James Redfield received a grant from the NEH to start a new major at the University of Chicago called "Fundamentals: Issues and Texts." Students who choose this major pose a big question — "What's the moral value of truth?" for instance, or "How can we love in modernity?" or "Is there such a thing as intellectual progress?" — and, with the help of a faculty advisor, develop a curriculum based in great works to pursue it. More than 30 years later, students still major in Fundamentals. Even though the NEH will undoubtedly make some bad grants, these may be a price worth paying to see more programs like Fundamentals — in addition to projects in areas such as course development, archaeological excavations, summer seminars and institutes for K-12 and college teachers on advanced topics, edited volumes of the writings of statesmen and great figures, historic newspaper preservation, documentation of endangered languages, and so on.

The GOP has tried abolishing the NEH before — at a time when the culture wars were at a fever pitch and the NEA's scandalous projects were fresh in people's minds. While the Contract with America Congress failed in its attempt, it successfully cut the NEA and NEH budgets. At the NEH, research and education bore the brunt of the cuts. The part of the NEH that went largely unscathed was the one part over which the chairman has the least amount of oversight: the state humanities councils. Rather than take up this crusade again, President Trump should appoint a good chairman and let that person make a difference, thus providing civic and liberal education with an influential friend at a time when they can use all the friends they can get.

Daniel Geary is a doctoral candidate in political science at Boston College. 


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