Bonfire of the Humanities

By Robert I. Rotberg and Martha Howell | The Christian Science Monitor, April 16, 2001 | Go to article overview

Bonfire of the Humanities


Robert I. Rotberg and Martha Howell, The Christian Science Monitor


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.

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.

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. …

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