National Humanities Alliance

Testimony on the Reauthorization of the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965

Before the U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education (Committee on Education and Labor), by Stanley N. Katz, President, American Council of Learned Societies, Presented on behalf of the National Humanities Alliance

May 2, 1990 

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

I am Stanley N. Katz, President of the American Council of Learned Societies and former President of two of our constituent societies, the American Society for Legal History and the Organization of American Historians.  The ACLS is chartered by the Congress of the United States to serve as the private sector representative of the humanities and the humanistic social sciences in this country.  We currently represent 51 professional disciplinary associations, which among them have very nearly 300,000 individual members.  We also represent the interest of American humanities and social science scholars abroad by means of our membership in international scholarly bodies and our formal agreements with foreign national academies of science.

It is a pleasure to testify before you today as a representative of the National Humanities Alliance, itself a consortium of more than 60 scholarly and professional associations, organizations of museums, libraries, historical societies, higher education, and state humanities councils, humanities centers, and other organizations concerned with national humanities policies.

I am here to support the reauthorization of the National Endowment of the Humanities and its cognate agencies, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum Services for five years -- without restrictions on the content of their grants.

I am particularly pleased that, in taking this position, I can join in common cause with President Bush and Lynne V. Cheney.  I think it is correct to say that we all believe that the unblemished record of the NEH entitles it to reauthorization without constraints which would hamper its grantmaking process and needlessly constrain its historic constituency.  It isn't broken and it doesn't need fixing.

To the contrary, the NEH has a remarkable 25 year record of successful service to the humanities community, and to the larger American society which we all serve.  My predecessor as President of the ACLS, Robert M. Lumiansky, was one of the proponents of the 1965 legislation creating the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities, and the ACLS has observed and worked with the Humanities Endowment ever since.  As Mrs. Cheney can testify, I have been among the first to criticize the Endowment when I disagreed with its policies.  I trust that she will also testify that I belong to the "loyal opposition" for I am here to tell you that I admire profoundly the contribution the Endowment has made to the life of the humanities in American for the past quarter century.  Now is the time for people who recognize the accomplishments (and unfulfilled potential) of NEH to lock arms and march together.

One of my scholarly fields is the history of philanthropic support for research in the United States.  I have for a long time marveled at the intricate and interrelated patterns of government and higher education that we developed during this century.  The terrain is dotted with private colleges, state and private universities, museums, historical societies, private research libraries and other institutions which serve multiple functions: teaching, research, development, public entertainment and public service.  By the second half of the century, we had created the finest higher education and cultural system in the world, an it was uniquely a dominantly private sector system.

Almost everywhere else, higher education and culture were predominantly (if not completely) government supported and administered.  Our traditions of voluntarism, philanthropy and limited government led us to develop a complex of private or state (e.g., Montana or Alabama) and local government sponsored institutions.  Most of these institutions drew funding from a variety of sources, but (prior to World War II) practically none from the federal government.  As the nation expanded dramatically after the War, the Congress recognized the need for national support of the private/state educational system and began to institute new federal institutions to serve it.  Some of the new institutions conducted research and engaged in training themselves as well as funding external research (the National Institutes of Health), while others were wholly committed to grant-making.  The National Science Foundation was the first of these, followed nearly twenty years later by the Arts and Humanities Endowments.

The federal research/educational endowments were brilliantly conceived to serve an interstitial function.  They were not intended to nationalize research and teaching, which American concepts of federalism have allocated to the states, but rather to provide support to existing state and private activities.  The endowments recognized the national value of research and teaching in science, the arts and humanities and sought a way to secure and strengthen the national educational system without damaging the system by the heavy hand of federal supervision.  Grants to institution and individuals were the vehicle for transferring federal funds, and peer review was the mechanism for ensuring the integrity of the process.

Congressional recognition of the viability of peer review as the way to select federal grantees was what made the new system work.  It represented congressional confidence in the reliability of the existing network of institutions, and avoided the historic American suspicion of the involvement of the federal government in cultural affairs.  In particular, the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 symbolized the mutual attainment of trust -- by the federal government of the educational institutions of the nation, and of the government by those state and local institutions.  This is a trust which cannot be violated without disrupting the post-War national educational settlement.  This is why the national educational community is so sensitive about the terms of reauthorization of the 1965 Act.

In this respect it is important to note the unusually broad scope of the Humanities Endowment, which supports research, teaching, and public education.  Perhaps more significantly, the Endowment channels that support in a variety of different ways to individuals and to institutions.  Among individual grantees are K-12 teachers, college/university teachers and researchers, independent scholars and humanists, museum and historical society curators, film makers and librarians.  Among institutional grantees are state humanities councils, colleges and universities, libraries, humanities centers, museums, and historical societies.  I have doubtless forgotten some important groups, but the point is the multiplicity of types.

The NEH is helping to support the SYSTEM of the humanities in this country.  The individuals and institutions I have just listed are not independent of one another, nor are they accidentally related.  They are all part of a network which has emerged over the past 200 years to create and transmit humanistic knowledge.  The different types of institutions emerged in different historical epochs (the colleges in the 17th century, the historical societies and the public schools in the early 19th century, the major museums in the late 19th century, the state humanities councils in the mid-20th century) but they have come to be interrelated.  Humanities training in the schools, as Mrs. Cheney has reminded us, is closely related to the quality of humanities instruction in the colleges, and the same can be said for public humanities programs, libraries and museums.

A successful ethnographic museum exhibition, for instance, requires scholars trained in an anthropology, keepers of collections in the museums trained to handle the objects, adequate physical plant and trained personnel to preserve the objects (a new NEH program), and education specialists to help interpret the scholarly findings to the public.  School teachers need up to date training in history, literature and language, accurate and stimulating textbooks and other curricular materials, and ongoing relationships to college and university teachers who share their concerns.  Good public humanities programs require the participation of professionally trained humanists, whether from the universities or elsewhere, and they are frequently sited in libraries, museums, historical societies, colleges and other humanities institutions.

We must recognize that parts of this system have hidden costs for functions that are central to the functioning of the whole network.  Libraries and museums are excellent examples, for it is easy to take for granted the existence of ever-growing and adequately preserved library and museum collections, with well-trained staff, or humanities centers at which scholars can do their research.  We tend to think of the humanities in terms of the largest and most visible functions -- history departments, library buildings, museum exhibitions -- but these depend upon a fragile infra structure.  I am happy to note that the Congress has recently singled out some of these infrastructural problems in the humanities, especially the preservation of printed books and museum collections, but we do not have a separate institution like the Institute of Museum Services, and it is essential that NEH be given the wherewithal to support our infrastructual institutions and activities.

Regrants (or subgrants) are one of the most important mechanisms available to the Humanities Endowment in carrying out its functions, and the Endowment has engaged in regranting from the beginning.  If it did not, NEH would have to increase the size of its own staff and thus its operating costs in order to perform the functions of existing regrantees.  If it did not, it would damage (and possibly destroy) the regranting agencies it currently funds, and these are some of our most important infrastructural organizations.  Let me give a few examples.  The National Humanities Center in North Carolina is the principal residential humanities center in the country.  The American Antiquarian Society in Massachusetts is the finest library of early Americana.  The International Research and Exchanges Board is the key authority on exchanges with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as is the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People's Republic of China in its area, and so on.  These institutions are not wholly or even primarily supported by NEH, but in an era of funding constriction, NEH funding is a critical component of the essential services they provide to the humanities community.  So far as I know, there has never been a claim of misbehavior on the part of regrantees over the 25 years of NEH funding.  The regrantees do not deserve inappropriate and inefficient reauthorization language.  On the contrary, the regranting process should be specifically authorized, in order to bring the NEH legislation into line with a quarter century of successful practice.

In conclusion, let me stress the importance of NEH to the humanities system of the United States.  As Dr. Lyman has pointed out in his testimony today, NEH is the largest single funder in the country.  It is also the only all-purpose funder, and it is therefore uniquely situated to contribute to the well-being of the humanities.  It works with a very large number of institutions of different kinds, and an even larger number of individuals.  It serves the humanities community extremely well.

And we serve NEH well.  Thousands of individuals serve on peer review panels, state humanities councils and engage in the activities funded by the Endowment.  Hundreds of thousands more receive the benefits of Endowment funding -- the students of NEH-Readers Digest teachers, the audiences for NEH funded exhibitions, college students using materials prepared for NEH curricular projects, individual fellowship recipients, and so forth.  We have operated in an atmosphere of mutual trust which has been essential to the success of the Endowment.  NEH has trusted us in the regrants process (of which the State Councils are the largest and most dramatic example), in peer review and in carrying out the terms of our grants.  We have trusted NEH to maintain our confidences, to exercise its functions fairly, and to allocate its funds wisely.  There have been moments of disagreement, but that is natural.  The system is unique to the United States, and it works.  Please do not introduce changes in the structure or functioning of NEH unless you have a clear take on what they will do in practice.  My 300,000 constituents and the organizations in the National Humanities Alliance support NEH as it is.