Publication Date

April 1, 2011

Perspectives Section


On March 7 and 8, 2011, more than 160 advocates representing 28 states convened in Washington, D.C., to urge Congress to support funding for the humanities. Participants included college and university teachers, university and association administrators, documentary editors, and independent scholars; they visited House and Senate offices to urge support for federal agencies that sustain research, education, public programs, and preservation in history and other fields. The Advocacy Day events took place in conjunction with the annual meeting of the National Humanities Alliance (NHA), of which the AHA is a member, along with nearly a hundred other organizations.

The budget climate in Washington is particularly difficult this year, with many recently elected representatives eager to show progress on their promises to cut spending and many moderates who have been supportive of funding for the humanities in the past facing reelection. However, as Jessica Jones Irons, executive director of the NHA, pointed out, advocates for the humanities are used to an uphill fight. She added that “cuts to these programs will go nowhere toward balancing the budget but will have a devastating impact on the programs and on humanities education.”

Participants pressed members of Congress to maintain funding at fiscal 2010 budget levels for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), protect funding for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), and maintain level funding for the Teaching American History (TAH) grant program, the largest single source of federal funding for history education. The House-passed spending bill for the remainder of fiscal 2011 decreased funding for the NEH and NHPRC and eliminated funding for TAH grants. The president’s proposed budget for fiscal 2012 included a 13 percent reduction for the NEH and a 50 percent reduction for NHPRC, and proposed consolidating TAH with several other grant programs. The president’s proposal also combines the Jacob Javits Fellowship Program, the only federal program offering grants to graduate students pursuing humanities degrees, with another program, Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need.

To help advocates make the case for continued funding of the various humanities programs, conference speakers described how the humanities produce students comfortable with innovation, complexity, and a multicultural world. Charles E. M. Kolb, president of the Committee for Economic Development, spoke about the importance of the humanities for educating future business leaders. Noting that in times of economic strain students often seek job training in business schools and for-profit educational institutions, he argued that successful business leaders need a grounding in literature and political thought and need to know how to communicate, write, think, and analyze, all qualities achieved through education in the humanities. Keynote speaker David Skorton, president of Cornell University, argued that humanities education is vital to economic competitiveness and national security, because “the most pressing and complex issues here and around the world will not be solved by science alone,” but instead by citizens who can think through the complex ethical questions posed by new developments in technology and medicine and understand and engage with people around the world.

In conjunction with the conference, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member organization of the NHA, announced a blue-ribbon commission to identify how to maintain national excellence in humanities and social science scholarship and education. Convened after a bipartisan call from members of the House and Senate, the Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences will spend two years exploring how to “achieve long-term national goals for our intellectual and economic well-being; for a stronger, more vibrant civil society; and for the success of cultural diplomacy in the 21st century.” The commission includes leaders in the humanities and social sciences, business, law, philanthropy, the arts, and the media. Participants include AHA president Anthony Grafton (Princeton Univ.), historian and Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust, film producer Ken Burns, and film director and producer George Lucas. The commission will complete its work in the next two years. For more information see

Debbie Ann Doyle is the AHA’s administrative manager and public history coordinator.

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