Two Days in March: Historians and Humanities Advocacy Day

Linda K. Kerber, May 2006

Linda Kerber and Naomi ZeffHumanities Advocacy Day is actually two days. Organized by the National Humanities Alliance (NHA), of which the AHA is a founding member, this advocacy event is rightly receiving increasing attention and support. More than a hundred people came from all over the country to Washington, D.C., March 1–2, for this year's Advocacy Day, to call on members of Congress early in the budget season, attempting to persuade them to support robust budgets for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and other federal agencies that sustain the humanities. I joined the effort on behalf of the AHA, and also as a constituent of the Iowa delegation to Congress.

I had thought I understood reasonably well the challenges of advocacy for the humanities and for the practices of history. I remember the bleak years of 1995–97, when the Senate voted against the History Standards, when the NEH and the National Endowment for the Arts faced elimination. When the endowments were sustained at barely two-thirds of their 1992 funding we counted it a victory, although, as we often pointed out, the level was the same as the funding for military marching bands. I emerged from those years with enormous admiration and gratitude for the state humanities councils, whose work in mobilizing thousands of constituents to persuade members of Congress of the importance of the public humanities for individuals and for communities was key to saving the NEH. And I concluded that universities and other academic institutions need to put considerably more effort into supporting federal funding for the humanities; that they should appreciate better than many now do the multiplier effects of even modest federal funding, not least the dependence of our tenure systems on the peer review and portable fellowships that the NEH provides.

But the challenges we face now are different from the challenges of a decade ago and somewhat more complicated. The president's budget asks for $140 million for NEH; the same amount as last year. Automatic increases in administrative salary and overhead costs mean that what appears to be steady-state funding actually is a cut of $1.32 million in funds for programs. History is at the core of NEH programming, and the National Coalition for History (the history community's advocacy organization of which the AHA is also a founding member) joins the NHA in asking Congress to fund the NEH at $156 million. In constant dollars, this is less than half of its level in 1979, when NEH was funded at what would be $386.5 million today. We are also encouraging the continuation of funding for the Department of Education's "Teaching American History" grants (the "Byrd" grants) at the current level of funding.

Furthermore, the president's budget seeks—yet again—to eliminate the 72-year-old National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). This shocking move, also undertaken for the fiscal 2005–06 budget, would have brought an abrupt conclusion to documentary edition projects throughout the country, and would have made fragile even the longest-standing projects like the Papers of John Adams. The proposed cuts galvanized historians, archivists, and many members of Congress to act to save the NHPRC. Allen Weinstein, then the newly named Archivist of the United States, mentioned the need to fund the NHPRC (which is funded by a line in the National Archives and Records Administration budget) in his inaugural speech. The newly formed House Humanities Caucus, led by Jim Leach (R-Iowa) and David Price (D-N.C.) threw its energy into funding the NHPRC; it was a victory when Congress approved funding for the national grants program of the NHPRC at $5.5 million plus an additional $2.2 million for administration. Thus it was an unwelcome surprise and a cause for a sense of frustration when once again, the president's budget for 2006–07 proposed zero funding for the NHPRC.

The fact is the federal budget only looks large. Once nondiscretionary commitments—social security, Medicare—are subtracted, once the massive military budget is set aside, relatively little is left for "discretionary funding"—which is where money for the humanities is found. Advocates were told wherever they went to expect little; that even $6–8 million would be hard to find. Still, we are asking Congress not only to support NEH at a higher level than last year, but to work to achieve "full funding" for the NHPRC (no less than $10 million for national grants and $2 million for staffing) so it can continue its traditional program activities and provide needed funds for disaster planning grants for state archives. Hurricane Katrina proved how unprepared state archives across the country really are for disasters.

The experience of paying calls as part of an advocacy coalition was new to me. It bears some resemblance to the comprehensive examinations of one's worst graduate student nightmares. On Capitol Hill, too, you are confronted by very smart people trained to be skeptical and noncommittal—even in the best of circumstances members of Congress are asked to support far more good causes than is possible. One enters unprepared at one's peril. The first day, therefore, was devoted to preparation.

In the morning, I sat in for a while with the NHA Policy Board, the executive officers of the major alliance members. The presidents of learned societies come and go annually. The professionals around the table are there for the long run: executives of societies like the Organization of American Historians, the American Studies Association, the Modern Language Association, and also leaders of organizations on which the humanities depend: the American Association of Museums, the Federation of State Humanities Councils, the Association of University Presses. They are veterans of years of advocacy. As they reflected on the challenges we face I was struck by the precision of their language, their careful sensitivity to their sometimes competing interests and the specificity with which they identified the politically achievable goals they shared. They are rarely well known to the membership—how many of us, reading Paul Ward's obituary in the March issue of Perspectives, had known anything of what he had done to shape the AHA in the years when he was executive secretary?—but we are, I think, very lucky that they use their talents on our behalf.

In the afternoon, those who had come to Washington as advocates gathered to hear efficient overviews of the policy issues and the political landscape, from Jessica Jones Irons of the NHA; Bruce Craig, well known to AHA members as the director of the National Coalition for History; and Susan Howard, a staff member for Representative Price who, along with Naomi Zeff, of Representative Leach's staff, coordinates the work of the House Humanities Caucus. Howard complimented us on our commitment, but charmingly warned us that we weren't the only advocacy group in town that day.

In my daily life I scorn the crib sheets that students occasionally smuggle in for tests; in this real-time exam, I was deeply grateful for the Issue Briefs that the NHA had prepared—to remind me of what we were asking and to leave behind as reminders in congressional offices. In my daily life I pride myself on improvisation; in this real-time exam I was deeply grateful for the coaching I received on using my 15–20 minutes effectively. It is definitely a learned art form.

In less than 15 minutes, against an inexorably ticking clock, you need to explain who you are and why your advice is reliable, why you care, why arcane research for new historical scholarship is important, why public programming like the history-based "We The People" program is important. You have to be prepared to be specific: in the district that includes Davenport, Iowa, you can't forget to mention that NEH provided $300,000 for the blockbuster exhibition of The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity 1915–1935 that inaugurated the new Figge Museum of Art. In the district that includes Des Moines you shouldn't forget to mention the funds that NHPRC provided for sustaining an archive. And you definitely can't mix up your districts. Occasionally a glint in a staffer's eye provides encouragement for a riff—on the existence of the papers of Margaret Sanger or on the extent to which a strong historical museum program with NEH support can also mean more tourists. And you may get a chance to point out why, even though the president's budget message highlights the ways in which the NEH supports traditional American history, the core programs of the NEH also support world and comparative history through scholarly research, preservation, access, education, challenge grants, public programs, and the work of state humanities councils. An endowment that is defined only in terms of a United States visualized parochially reinforces, you want to add, a narrow vision of the interests of Americans, when what we really need is a wider, transnational, and global understanding of the world and the U.S. relations in it. But you can't outstay your welcome. You have to explain all that, please, in 15 minutes and leave time for questions.

But if advocacy is a learned art form, it can be an addictive one. Editors of the documentary historical projects funded in part by NHPRC have learned the art form the hard way; they spend large portions of their time seeking public and private funds. As I and my Iowa colleague, a thoughtful and unflappable veteran of such efforts, who has been conversing with members of Congress and their staff for decades, made our way to the Rayburn House Office Building, we bumped into a cluster of documentary editors—Charlene Bickford, Roger Bruns, Allida Black, and several others who were heading in the same direction, where they were preparing to meet with the appropriations subcommittee that provides funding for the National Archives.


Humanities Advocacy DayAdvocacy has its ironies and it is never ending. While we were urging members of Congress to expand funding for NHPRC and the National Archives, on March 2 AHA Executive Director Arnita Jones was sitting—along with other very troubled historians—at a meeting at the National Archives that had been called in alarm because of the announcement of the removal of declassified documents from the archives, an alarm that had been first sounded by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations after researcher Matthew Aid had discovered that documents he had already used had been removed from circulation. Archivist Weinstein imposed a moratorium on federal agency personnel from withdrawing previously declassified documents and proposed a "National Declassification Initiative" that would develop standardized guidelines and ensure consistency in review. A few days later the State Department Historical Advisory Committee, chaired by former AHA president Wm. Roger Louis, endorsed Weinstein's moratorium. Within another week—on March 14—Matthew Aid and Anna Nelson were testifying before the House Subcommittee on National Security (along with Archivist Weinstein and others).

Similarly, while we are urging members of Congress to expand funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, we are simultaneously expressing dismay that the NEH no longer encourages those who have not been successful in their fellowship applications to request the reports of the peer review committees. NEH is obliged to provide the reviews to applicants who request them, and it is generally true that, win or lose, an author can learn much that is helpful from the reports—an advantage that private foundations rarely provide. From time to time, requesting reviews can also reveal when the chair of the endowment or NEH Council members have exercised their authority to overturn the recommendations of the peer review panel, as Marc Stein discovered last year and reported at the AHA annual meeting in Philadelphia. At that time the NEH revised its letters to unsuccessful applicants, dropping the paragraph that had encouraged them to request written comments made by the reviewers. Only if you hunt around on the NEH web site will you find that you may request your comments by e-mail at I believe that the NEH should more prominently publicize the right of unsuccessful applicants to receive written comments of reviewers and of panelists (a list of this year's successful NEH applicants appeared in the April issue of Perspectives).


The first day ended with a gathering in a reception room in the Rayburn House Office Building, meant to cheer us on, to show us that we were not alone, and to develop synergy before we went off to our rounds in twos and threes the next day. Around the perimeter of the reception room were displays of a dozen major projects, chosen to show the range of enterprises that the NEH supports, accompanied by their investigators who answered questions and showed them off with pride. You can inspect many of these online: the Walt Whitman Archive and the Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition developed by the University of Nebraska's Center for Research in the Humanities; New Orleans' Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, collecting oral and visual histories of Katrina, Rita, and Wilma; SUNY-Buffalo's online collection of translated and annotated texts, charmingly called Litgloss, that provides not only authoritative texts in their original languages but "on the spot" translations of difficult words and phrases, and is now expanding to include non-European languages (Arabic, Hindi, Hebrew, Korean, and other Asian, African, and indigenous languages).

Humanities Advocacy DayAs the pictures that accompany this article show, the room was packed with advocates (I spotted, among other historians, David Berry of Community College Humanities Association, Theodore Crackel, editor of the papers of George Washington; Mary-Jo Kline, consultant on the papers of John Jay; David Kyvig of Northern Illinois University, Roy Rosenzweig of George Mason University, and Scott Waugh of UCLA), and the staffs of Humanities Caucus members. There were brief speeches by Bruce Cole, the chair of the NEH, and by David Price and Jim Leach, eloquently linking the public policy choices that they make to the grounding that the humanities can provide. Leach observed that perhaps the most important recipients of federal funding for humanities these days are the historians attached to the branches of the military, whose work now guards the integrity of the historical record and constrains the temptations to "spin" history.

The federal government is large and distant; to influence it we need to work in large coalitions and partisan movements. But humanities advocates also work in its microclimates —in conversations, and in prose that captures the difference that federal funding can make to our ability to remember and draw upon past experience that is at the foundation of culture; to the preservation of historical sources, to the constant struggle to understand and interpret them, to the education that takes place inside and outside of classrooms.

Now again we must focus on the microclimate. As I write, Representatives Price and Leach are circulating "Dear Colleague" letters to gain critical support for the NEH and the NHPRC. When you read a book in which the acknowledgments thank the NEH for the fellowship that sustained the writer, or whose footnotes draw on a documentary edition, a dictionary of an endangered language, or a web site that provided accurate page images of manuscripts, you are being served by public enterprises whose value is widely underestimated and severely underfunded, and which need all the support they can get from academe and from the public. If, for example, the Smithsonian Institution could count on public funding, would it be driven to seek commercial resources through entrance fees or contractual arrangements such as those it recently entered into with Showtime Television? As you read this, other crucial decisions are being made about many humanities projects; the Federation of State Humanities Councils will have staged another advocacy day (Humanities on the Hill on April 4, 2006), and the Society of American Archivists will have used May 1 as a "May Day" to advocate better funding for emergency response planning. But advocacy action is not just for organizations. Individuals can—and should—play a role too.

Do not underestimate the significance of the phone calls you can make and the letters you might write. Whether it is requesting the critiques of unsuccessful applications and monitoring the evenhandedness with which they are assessed, or visiting and writing to members of Congress to help them understand the needs of the humanities and to take pride in what they have already achieved, no work is insignificant. It is equally crucial to explain to them the public's interest in sustaining a robust commitment to fund scholarship, archives, museums, and public programs (not least to keep them free from commercial intrusion). And whatever the outcome of this year's efforts, next year (and in the years after) we must do this again with the hope that each year we become a little more effective.

—Linda K. Kerber (Univ. of Iowa) is president of the AHA.