NEH Gets Digital Direction, Steers Clear of Culture Wars: Largest Funder of Humanities Looks to Be on Cutting Edge

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The National Endowment for the Humanities' top panel took a break from approving grants here last week to watch two Hollywood versions of "Hamlet" get a high-tech, side-by-side analysis on a viewing screen.

What the 20 NEH council members saw may one day be standard on high school computers, where students can use the Internet or a CD-ROM to study Shakespeare and avant-garde film criticism all at once.

"None of this enterprise could have been accomplished without the sustained support of NEH," Janet H. Murray, senior researcher in educational computing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in her presentation.

The era of digital humanities has arrived.

And while the endowment remains bullish on real books and museums, it also wants to be on the "cutting edge" in putting everything from Shakespeare to black history and American presidential letters on the information highway, quickly and cheaply.

"Under my tenure, and whoever comes after me, technology will be a key part of how we move our resources to the general public," said NEH Chairman William Ferris, a folklorist and anthropologist who has headed the agency since late 1997.

Now in its 33rd year, the NEH finds itself far less mired in the culture wars than it once was.

Though at a low ebb in funding - $110 million annually compared to $177 million Congress approved until 1995 - the endowment is making a mark on high-tech learning, teacher training and historical preservation.

While much NEH-funded scholarship is understandable to the public, much of it speaks only to the ivory tower as well.

This year's Jefferson Lecture, endowed since 1972, was given last week at the Kennedy Center by Columbia University medieval scholar Caroline Walker Bynum, who chose a lofty literary topic - focusing on what is human identity.

She compared Roman, medieval and modern stories about werewolves, in which people changed identities, to discuss a way that modern people can avoid clashes over political, racial and sexual differences.

By seeing each other's identity as "shape-carrying story," she said, people can sympathize with those different from them, rather than feel antagonistic.

The Jefferson Lecture has featured scholars from across the political spectrum on subjects ranging from public policy and history to philosophical abstraction - a range that reflects the 900 projects the NEH funds each year.

One NEH-funded legacy that went on to enjoy mass appeal is the work of filmmaker Ken Burns, who got started on federal money before he went on to produce blockbuster documentaries on the Civil War and baseball.

"We are by far the largest funder of the humanities," said Mr. Ferris, who added he talks with lawmakers on Capitol Hill every day. "The endowment is a can-do institution. We are the arbiter of excellence."

He said humanities scholars gain credibility with an NEH grant and that the status helps popularize their work and attract private funding. Six grantees have earned Pulitzer Prizes.

The screening process, which in the end approves one in five requests, begins with 650 scholars who circulate through Washington throughout the year, meeting in some 125 panels to recommend winners in specific areas.

That list goes to the 20-member National Council of the Humanities, which gathers here three times annually. Their list goes to Mr. Ferris for a final stamp of approval, before being sent on to Congress.

Last week's session primarily approved "preservation and access" grants which, for example, bolster museum upkeep or protect deteriorating archives. …