News

New Directions at the NEH

AHA Staff, April 1998

William R. Ferris Jr., head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has put forth a new plan entitled "Rediscovering America: The Humanities and the Millennium," as his first major project since his appointment in December 1997. Under this plan, with a proposed budget of $5 million in fiscal year 1999, a series of regional centers will be established at colleges and universities for the purpose of promoting understanding of and access to the humanities at a local level. Ferris, a specialist in southern culture and the founder of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, hopes that the centers will enable all Americans to discover and benefit from the NEH at the local level, and also help to preserve the nation's heritage as we enter the new millennium.

Other components of the program include "Schools for a New Millennium," designed to help teachers and schools implement new technologies in the classroom; "My History Is America's History," which will encourage and assist Americans in the study of genealogy and its relationship to the nation's history; "Great Books for the New Millennium" in support of a series of programs on public television featuring works of literature; and preservation and access programs for national museums and historical and research organizations.

The millennium proposal has met with mixed reviews from some historians and other humanities scholars. Though the centers will have value in their own right, some fear that funds and energies should be channeled into supporting and strengthening the endowment's existing programs, rather than diverting these resources to new initiatives. Stanley N. Katz, professor of history at Princeton University and vice president of the AHA Research Division, said that "the Ferris initiative 'Rediscovering America' is a very interesting idea, and certainly the country would be well-served by several centers that were as valuable as the Center for Southern Culture that Ferris built and ran so ably." However, Katz questioned whether the NEH could afford such centers without sacrificing existing programs, particularly in the wake of budget cuts during recent years. Citing the nearly 60 percent cut in the NEH's research programs since 1995, Katz observed that "the $5 million proposal for 'Rediscovering America' is a huge number, especially when taken together with the large increase for the state humanities councils. The real issue for historians, I would argue, is replacing the funds we have lost for research--and I hate to see new programs, however worthy, until we can re-empower the NEH to maintain its support of the research function."

The special programs under the heading of "Rediscovering America" will complement the NEH's request for sufficient funding to continue and enhance established programs and operations. The fiscal 1999 budget includes request for $28.4 million for research and education, a significant increase over last year's $22.7 million, and the endowment has announced no plans to cut existing programs in support of the new initiative.