From the From the President column of the April 2010 issue of Perspectives on History

Fiat Lux: Public Funding and the Humanities

Barbara D. Metcalf, April 2010

The mass rally held recently in Sacramento in support of higher education in California, and the annual meeting of members of the National Humanities Alliance in Washington in the following week, reminded me of how much I personally owe to the public support of higher education and research in the humanities. This kind of support was especially important to me early on in my career. I was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, a public university. Since family responsibilities limited my mobility, I was especially fortunate that Berkeley was the one general University of California campus in those years that had a substantial program in South Asian studies (the non-western world having been divided in the UC system between what were then the two major research campuses, UCLA and Berkeley). The South Asian Center at Berkeley was one of several, I might add, that was supported in part by federal funds.

As a graduate student I was a beneficiary of federal support through what were then called “National Defense Foreign Language Fellowships.” These fellowships were intended to encourage the study of a range of modern languages associated with newly important “area studies,” among them Urdu, an Indo-European language written in a Persian script that emerged in the north of the Indian sub-continent. The word “defense” in the title of these fellowships was owed to the post-Sputnik Cold War program to develop international education. I was grateful for the support, but could only joke about the potential for “defense” from someone with my own interests in the lives and work of Islamic scholars and spiritual guides in colonial north Indian country towns. Lest I think otherwise about the value of what I was doing, the celebrated San Francisco Chronicle columnist Art Hoppe, when ruminating on the excesses and oddities of the university across the Bay, always singled out “Urdu and Etruscan” to summarize the obscurities of what he thought went on there.

Federal programs also served me well in sustaining my early career. In what proved to be a temporary first job, followed by a period “between jobs,” I was lucky enough to have a year’s fellowship to India, thanks again to a federal program, as well as a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for a program, now defunct, that supported translations from a range of lesser-known languages—like Urdu. I got my PhD in the mid-1970s, a time when the gap between the number of new doctoral students and job openings for historians was even more extreme than it is now.

Still, today’s job market is profoundly sobering. Many new PhDs are finding themselves in the situation I was in then, with the hurdle of the dissertation behind them but no appropriate job yet in hand. Among the many reasons to be concerned about cuts in federal programs today is precisely their potential role in postdoctoral support. Such support could make a crucial difference in sustaining professional careers at a critical time. In fact, a current proposal to Congress, put forward by the National Humanities Alliance—of which the AHA is an active member—requests some $60 million dollars to support two-year early career teaching fellowships. This is a program modeled on a 2009 program of the American Council of Learned Societies. These fellowships are intended not only as a way to support humanities teaching but also as a resource, ideally, to provide a bridge to longer-term work in this challenging market. Admittedly, such support will not solve the larger problems of employment, but it will surely help.

The federal programs of course do much more than funding individuals, from supporting teaching, to materials preservation and dissemination, to the institutional needs of museums and libraries. The National Humanities Alliance will be organizing participants in its annual meeting to make visits to members of Congress and their staff in order to promote the importance of federal support for all these programs. Among the programs at stake, every last one of which is important to historians, are the National Endowment for the Humanities itself, the Teaching American History program, Title VI international education programs (which include graduate fellowships, long since renamed as Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships), the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. It is fair to say that in asking for strong support for the humanities, one is not asking for much. The amounts allocated for federal programs like these are minuscule when compared to the vast expenditures on the major governmental activities so much in the news these days like the military budget, proposed healthcare reform, and entitlement programs. These small programs, however, are no less vulnerable, and indeed may be particularly susceptible to cuts at a time when lawmakers perforce look for easy targets. A reduction in the NEH’s budget has already been proposed by the president for fiscal 2011.

How do we make the case for the humanities? Both within national programs and in many academic institutions, the tilt to supporting science and technology is evident. No one would want either to be funded less. But part of the challenge for arguing the importance of subjects like history and literature is to be wary of emphasizing only the measurable contribution of these subjects to solving social problems or enhancing business opportunities. Both research and teaching in the humanities, as in the sciences, may well make contributions to preparing students for the workforce, stimulating business opportunities, and enhancing an institutional “revenue stream.” But as any faculty member would concur, these disciplines serve to educate and enlighten broadly, with a discipline like history attuned to fostering critical analysis of texts and sources as well as perspective on our own and other historical contexts in ways that are essential for individual and civic life.

My own early studies could, to be sure, be justified as a case in point for the value of studying a subject that turned out to have contemporary relevance. Three or four decades ago, the world defined by the language of Urdu may have seemed relentlessly obscure to an American. But Urdu in recent years has become a “critical language” in federal government terminology, thanks to a geopolitical world that has thrust Pakistan and its neighbors into the limelight. In my case, Urdu was specifically the route to studying the Islamic scholars and holy men of the British colonial period who turned out to be—greatly transformed—the ideological fathers of contemporary movements like the Taliban and Tablighi Jama‘at. What was once deemed irrelevant is not so now, and I certainly have welcomed opportunities to provide historical background to contemporary issues whenever I could. But it’s good to resist the temptation to make concrete utility or relevance the dominant measure of what we do, even if some projects do indeed, sooner or later, serve specific ends. I’d study the Deobandi Sufis and ‘ulama even if their heirs never made the front page. I’d do so simply for all the good reasons that any of us invokes in trying to figure out the richness and complexity of our human past. Art Hoppe was wrong.

The problems of the economy, and, in California, the fallout from the policies of a dysfunctional state, are so great that merely reminding ourselves and our potential funders of why we do what we do may seem hopelessly beside the point. And in any case, in any foreseeable future, public funding alone will not solve the needs of our academic institutions or of the archives, libraries, museums, and other organizations that serve disciplines like ours. But public funding is a critical piece, and we need to invoke the beleaguered but resilient University of California’s heroic motto, Fiat lux, in confidence and hope, for our multiple institutions and for those who should support them.

Barbara D. Metcalf (professor emerita, University of California at Davis; and Andrew W. Mellon Emeritus Fellow, University of Michigan) is president of the AHA.