Publication Date

January 1, 1995

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director

This fall the steady rhythm of weekend meetings by AHA divisions and committees met a contrapuntal force, in the form of urgent gatherings of scholarly societies focused on suddenly altered funding realities. At an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) retreat, at several meetings between Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) and the White House, and at strategy sessions of the National Humanities Alliance (NHA), representatives of scholarly associations began exploring ways to protect financial support for research conducted by their members. In the larger context emerging here in Washington, likely funding cuts appear to be linked to broader attacks (such as those on the proposed standards for teaching U.S. and world history) that devalue the contributions made by intellectuals and the academy to American civil society. To turn this current cacophony into a new form of modern music will require significant effort and creativity by the scholarly community. We will, therefore, treat a number of topics related to this effort in this and future issues of Perspectives.

The cuts are likely target a number of programs important to research and scholarly communication. For instance, even the best news in the Contract With America suggests a "slowing of growth" in the funding of National Science Foundation (NSF) programs; in recent years NSF has succeeded in making a place for social science research in its programs, but the experiences of the 1981-92 period suggest that social science programs will be the first to be targeted for elimination. (For analysis of the issues involved, see the recent article by Amitai Etzioni, William Gamson, and Felice Levine in the November 30 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Build on Knowledge from the Social Sciences to Fight the Spread of AIDS,” page A56.) Most dramatically, the contract targets both the arts and humanities endowments for cuts so severe they will be eliminated in a short period of time. Even without deliberate attempts to debilitate their budgets the endowments are directly threatened, since the legislation that jointly authorizes both endowments comes up for renewal this year. No action on reauthorization could become the grounds for not passing appropriations as well. Other programs, such as the Fullbright program, are also threatened. And new gains—such as the possibility that Eisenhower money, previously limited to science and math education, could be used in coming years for history and other subjects—are now imperiled. Finally, portions of the administration’s approach to the National Information Infrastructure (NII sector of the Intemet) may well be altered to downplay protection of public interest provisions (to which scholarly and education benefits have been linked) in favor of commercial, more expensive forms of access.

Given the number of voices raised and the fact that not all congressional committee and subcommittee assignments have been made, the larger problems of these developments are not yet clear. But those aspects of the pattern that seem to be emerging require our immediate and careful attention. First, to the extent that funding continues for research support, it seems to be targeted only to presentist, short-term policy issues. This leaves little room for historical depth in a research program, and might lead to bad policy conclusions as well The focus on short-term policy topics is not exclusive to federal government funding; the inclination of the Ford Foundation and other private foundations to shift away from culture-focused interdisciplinary approaches such as area studies has suggested to many observers a similar kind of emphasis on presentist, short-term issues. Since Ford and similar agencies provide the mainstay of funding for the ACLS and Social Science Research Council, a decrease in such support will directly effect the work of historians, who are prominent in the programs and projects of those two organizations.

Second, historical work shades off from humanities into the arts at one end of the spectrum, and into the social sciences from humanities at the other end. But the core of the work of AHA members remains clustered in the humanities in the middle of this spectrum, and the financial picture at this point for the humanities may well be the most troubling of the three areas. Where social scientists have had sane hope of support from science funding, and where the arts enjoy a significant amount of private patronage, the humanizes have the smallest range of funding support options. Chief among these, of course, has been the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Historians thus have at least two fundamental tasks to perform in the next few months. One: we must make clear how we contribute to an informed citizenry and the proper functioning of an inclusive civil society. NEH's support for research—and through it, for innovations in teaching and public programming—is not, as syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer put it recently, "welfare check writ[ing] for the intellectual classes." Rather, it provides the new knowledge that advances our society's understanding of the past, as well as the skills that enable workers and citizens to evaluate the information that is provided to them.

Two: we need to work quite directly to preserve the NEH for the reasons given in the preamble to its authorizing legislation, including (no. 4): "Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants" and (no. 11): "To fulfill its educational mission, achieve an orderly continuation of free society, and provide models of excellence to the American people, the Federal Government must transmit the achievement and values of civilization from the past via the present to the future, and make widely available the greatest achievements of art." To reinvent the NEH after society has recognized its loss would be a herculean task.

To accomplish these goals we will need to form alliances based on fundamental affinities embedded in the scholarly enterprise—alliances between social scientists and humanists, between humanists and artists, between area specialists and those in the disciplines, between those on campuses and those in learned societies. Not coincidentally, I think, historians and the AHA occupy a central ground for each of these potential alliances. At the same time, we will need to demonstrate that we are not relics consigned to the ivory tower, but concerned citizens who are willing to work through local connections to make the case to congressional representatives in their districts. As we work with our cohorts here in Washington, and provide information for you in the districts, we'd like your suggestions. Tell us how we might make our case most effectively and how we might help you to do so. In any case, you will obviously be hearing more from us in the weeks and months ahead.

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