From the Executive Director

Why Investing in the NEH is Vital: A Plea to Congress

James Grossman, May 2012

Transcript of Oral Testimony Offered to Congressional Subcommittee
by the Executive Director of the AHA

Editor's Note: In place of the usual essay from the executive director, we are reprinting in this month's column—because of the timeliness and significance of the topic—an edited transcript of the oral testimony offered by Grossman on March 22, 2012, to the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations' Subcommittee on Interior, Environment & Related Agencies. Grossman delivered the testimony on behalf of both the AHA and the National Humanities Alliance. The transcript published here is brief because the oral testimony was limited to five minutes by the committee guidelines. Grossman also submitted a more detailed written testimony to the subcommittee. This document is available online as a PDF file at http://blog.historians.org/file_download/49. Testifying before congressional committees is but a small part of the AHA's advocacy on behalf of the activities and interests of historians working in a wide variety of venues.

AHA Executive Director James Grossman testifies before the House Committee on Appropriations' Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies to advocate for the humanities and NEH funding. Others testifying are (at left) Paul Ulrich (board member of the Wyoming Humanities Council), Erik M. Hein (president, Preservation Action), Tom Cassidy (vice president, Government Relations & Policy, National Trust for Historic Preservation), and Ruth Pierpont (president, National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers). Photo by Chris Hale.Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify in support of fiscal year 2013 funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities. I am James Grossman, Executive Director of the American Historical Association. This statement is submitted on behalf of both the AHA and the National Humanities Alliance, a coalition on which I serve as a member of the board of directors.

For fiscal year 2013 we strongly urge the Subcommittee to provide no less than $154.3 million in funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the same amount requested by the Administration. This represents a modest $8.2 million increase over the final 2012 appropriation of $146 million. The NEH budget has suffered a significant reduction over the last two years—more than $21 million (13.2 percent) between fiscal years 2010 and 2012.

Fifteen years ago I co-directed an NEH summer seminar for college teachers on how historians use biography in our teaching and research. The participants were faculty members from teaching-oriented colleges and universities. We read biographies of individuals who shaped American history. We talked about how historians reach broad audiences by writing biography; and how we can use biographical materials in our classrooms to bring history alive to students interested in individual stories. We exchanged ideas about how we integrate our teaching and research, and create new knowledge through the study of individuals in historical context.

This work is important beyond our campuses. The research and teaching supported by the NEH are central to understanding not only our own heritage, but also foreign cultures and languages. We can neither formulate informed foreign policy or even military strategy, nor compete in a global marketplace, without continuing to support research and teaching in these areas.

That support is currently inadequate, especially given the limits of other sources of funding. Our inability to support the work of young scholars through the fellowships program that I benefitted from early in my career is akin to plowing under our seed corn: young scholars need the kind of opportunity that I had in 1985 to write books that launch careers. Currently NEH funds only one-sixth of its applicants. I've served on enough peer review panels to know that many more proposals merit support.

I've also worked closely with NEH staff for more than two decades, and have been consistently impressed by the efficiency and fairness with which they have dealt with a budget that has declined precipitously in real dollars. I've also seen the damage that has taken place because the Endowment can no longer adequately support humanities infrastructure and projects.

We do our humanities work well in the United States. American higher education remains the best in the world—a beacon for students across the liberal arts disciplines and an inspiration for the teaching and modeling of creative and critical thinking. The research and education programs funded by the NEH are essential to maintaining the quality that enables American universities to attract students from across the world. This brings money into our economy and builds ongoing networks as graduates return home as leaders in business and government.

The work of the NEH benefits all Americans in other ways as well. The humanities are a lifelong enterprise and a public resource. Think about the educational role of our museums and libraries for Americans of all ages and backgrounds. Some of you might have seen the exhibition a few blocks away at the Folger Shakespeare Library last year on the history of the King James Bible. NEH support enables a version of the exhibition – and others on Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln to travel to Laramie, Wyoming, and other towns and cities across the nation. NEH grants enable institutions like the Idaho State Historical Society and Mountain Home Public Library to preserve the thousands of photographs, maps, and oral histories that document our heritage.

The NEH has moved aggressively in developing digital resources that have transformed how people discover and experience the past. To this generation of students, if it isn't online it doesn't exist. From the first grader doing a school report on Abraham Lincoln to high school seniors trying to understand the complexities and historical context of the American experience in Central Asia, their first destination is the Internet. Digital humanities programs supported by the NEH help ensure that students have ready access to the best scholarship. Through its "EDSITEment" web site, the NEH makes it easy for high school teachers to find high quality materials specifically oriented towards teaching and learning.

I recognize that this subcommittee confronts difficult and complex choices in allocating priorities. My colleagues and I remain grateful for the strong support that the subcommittee has demonstrated for the NEH. We hope that you will continue to consider the NEH as a vital investment in the nation's global competitiveness, the strength and vitality of our civic institutions, the preservation and understanding of our diverse cultural heritage, and the lives of our citizens. Thank you for the opportunity to be heard.

James Grossman is the executive director of the AHA.