From the Executive Director

Facing the Debate on the Support of New Knowledge

Sandria B. Freitag, February 1995

Continuing the focus from last month's column, we have included in this issue two related articles on the implications of cuts in federal funding support for research in the humanities and social sciences. While the social science article (by Etzioni, Gamson, and Levine) is organized around the example of AIDS, it makes a large argument that is akin to humanist's concern about the National Endowment for the Humanities. The NEH forms the topic of the second article, slated to be published also as a "Point of View" piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. These two articles join the current debate in Washington centered on the contributions that intellectuals will be permitted to make to an American Civil society.

At the heart of this debate is a challenge to the concept that that the federal government should be in the business of supporting the work of the creators of new knowledge. Interestingly, this challenge does not apply, as well, to the work of hard scientists. (The National Science Foundation, for instance, is listed in the Contract with America only as receiving a smaller increase in funding support.) But it clearly is meant to apply to social scientists, humanists, and artists.

As this debate over the NEH plays out, it may arise in several different guises in the legislative process. Since the authorizing legislation for the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities expired two years ago, neglect alone could kill the endowments should the not receive new authorization. (In the past, Congress has been willing to pass budget allocations for agencies without authorization; the new Republican majority has served notice that it will not do so.) Even if authorizing legislation is approved, there will still be debates about the level of funding available; coupled with this may very well be attempts to change fundamentally the array of programs currently supported by the NEH.

From the perspective of researchers—those who create new knowledge for use in our society—the importance of this potential threat to the NEH comes not only from the fact that the endowment provides more that 60 percent of nonuniversity support for individual research. It is also that this new knowledge has been very successfully disseminated to the general public, through programs like NEH Summer Seminars for K–12 teachers and college faculty as well as the public programming presented by the state humanities councils, museums, and libraries. Beneficiaries thus have included large numbers of schoolchildren as well as adults from all walks of life. Historians, too, have benefited immensely from this interaction with the general public: should the NEH's central role in connecting us with the public be eliminated, we will be faced with both practical and political problems we will have to solve by inventing new alternatives to the NEH.

Also printed in this issue is the text of a resolution passed by the AHA Council at its meeting on Friday, January 5, 1995, regarding the NEH. To follow up the commitment in the resolution, the AHA will work to keep you informed about developments here in Washington, and alert you to key moments when grassroots action would be especially productive. We encourage you to let us know if you are interested in receiving timely information for this purpose (you can send us, in writing, the regular mail and/or e-mail addresses you would like us to use for this purpose). In addition, we are pleased to note that Page Putnam Miller, director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History has agreed to provide weekly electronic summaries of Washington developments on the NEH and other issues of import to historians: these summaries will be distributed over H-Net. Obviously, we will continue to address this issue over the coming months in a number of venues.