As published in the CT POST on 2/1/2021:
Relaunch Our Democracy: Increase Funding for the NEH
*Written collaboratively by the executive directors of the six New England humanities councils
Connecticut can be proud that our congresswoman, Rosa DeLauro, has ascended to the position of chair of the House Appropriations Committee. As she and her colleagues weigh a staggering number of priorities, it is critical that funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) not get lost among them. NEH funding awarded directly to organizations and through fifty-five state and jurisdictional humanities councils, has been essential to supporting our cultural sector and maintaining civic vitality in our nation for nearly fifty years.
There is no more important time in our nation’s history to relaunch our democracy. The horrific events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 gave way to an impromptu history lesson for the American public. When Congress resumed its proceedings, senators and representatives took pains to cite events in our history when the nation beat back the terrors of mob violence—and the consequences when it failed to do so in the past. Republicans and Democrats alike took turns offering their interpretations of the War of 1812, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the civil rights movement. History, they told us, should be our beacon during this dark moment.
To illuminate our path, the founding legislation for NEH states presciently that “democracy demands wisdom.” Humanities councils across the nation recognize this as the foundation for reinvigorating our democracy. The crises we face as Americans require a new start. We must lay the groundwork for a reawakening of civic engagement by encouraging the participation of all residents in this reckoning with our histories. The rebuilding of America can begin in the public spaces dedicated to learning: libraries, community centers, local museums and historic sites. The national conversation about our past and future should be robust, multilingual, and ongoing. The Biden administration and the 117th Congress can stimulate this national conversation by significantly increasing funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities.
State humanities councils create access to the humanities for the public, providing grants and programs that nurture the wisdom that exists in communities. We support literature-based programs and documentary films, public discussions about race and the environment, educational opportunities for underserved communities, and websites that guide students through the histories of our states and nation.
In 2020 the humanities coursed through public life. Undaunted by the pandemic, communities across the country commemorated the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote, confronted a reckoning over racial justice, and challenged the fitness of monuments in our public spaces. Voter rights, race, immigration, and monuments might be subjects our neighbors view differently, but our differences need not harden into pitched battles, much less result in waving the Confederate flag in the Capitol rotunda. We need increased support for public humanities institutions and programs, which regularly convene community members to face hard truths and engage in dialogue around difficult subjects.
To make these efforts transformative, the humanities require significantly more funding at the federal level. The current NEH allocation of $167 million is, by any measure, a woefully low investment in our shared culture. Funding for NEH peaked in 1994 ($310 million in today’s dollars) during another turning point in our political history, and a return to that level would send a clear message about Congress’s appreciation for history and civic vibrancy.
Increased funding would also catalyze the preparations for an important milestone: the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 2026. A well-funded NEH and its state affiliates could use the sesquicentennial as a goalpost for creating more honest appraisals of our history. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” deserves a place in any discussion of the Revolution, knowing the more revolutionary moment will come when the diverse populations of our states see themselves in the stories we tell about American democracy. Such a celebration would serve as a powerful rebuke of what we witnessed in Washington on January 6.
As we imagine national unity, we should not forget the history lessons offered by our elected officials during this moment of crisis. A greater investment in NEH provides an affordable, inclusive first step to relaunch our democracy.
Maine Humanities Council
New Hampshire Humanities
Rhode Island Council for the Humanities
Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup