OP-ED: National Endowment for the Humanities Cuts Would Harm Local Communities

When he arrived in Philadelphia in the 1720s, Benjamin Franklin had few financial resources to support himself, let alone acquire the books he craved. In an era before public libraries, he did what he would so often in his life: founded his own. With a group of friends equally yearning for further education, he founded the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731 to share the costs of books so that many Philadelphians could access both classic and modern texts. (The Library Company still exists to this day.) He also later founded the Philadelphia Academy—now the University of Pennsylvania—to further broaden educational opportunities. For Franklin and other Americans of the Revolutionary generation, broad access to knowledge in the arts and humanities was key to creating a republic of citizens who could govern themselves.
The proposed federal budget released last week would, by contrast, devastate the arts and humanities in the United States. Included among the draconian cuts, the President’s Budget calls for the shutdown of cultural institutions such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, which would end the agency’s fifty-year legacy of funding arts and humanities projects. This outcome would be tragic because the NEH and its sister agencies provide irreplaceable support for the preservation and dissemination of the cultural heritage of our nation, include every state and thousands of local communities.
The NEH notes in a statement released with its budget request the many areas in which it has funded projects. They include programs that support veterans, such as the Warrior Scholars Project, which aids soldiers returning to college, and Standing Together: The Humanities and the Experience of War, which has helped to document how our war has shaped our veterans. The NEH has offered numerous grants to support teaching at community colleges and K-12 public schools. Perhaps most importantly, NEH has funded a series of projects in the digital humanities, which enables researchers and the public to access our cultural heritage online.
Hearing about cuts to the budgets of various federal cultural institutions can sound abstract, especially because much of the debate has focused on large-scale projects with a national scope or the support prominent authors and artists. A portion of NEH funding does go to individuals. I can attest to the utility of these grants, having received funding in 2012 from the NEH to take up a research fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester for a book on the news media and the American Revolution. Many of the books and articles that I use in both my teaching and research were published in part thanks to similar grants and fellowships.
Yet the bulk of the grants offered by NEH go to local institutions and small-scale projects. These grants, though small in size, have an enormous impact in our communities, including in public school and college classrooms. In addition to reading work supported by the NEH, students around the nation use digital resources that provide access to a treasure trove of materials from around the world. For example, just in the past academic year students in my courses have used NEH-funded projects to study early US elections, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the correspondence of Revolutionary-era political leaders.
But NEH does much more than simply fund projects for academic purposes. It also provides a significant portion of funding to state and local organizations, including Mass Humanities, which supports dozens of events and programs throughout the Commonwealth. It organizes annual readings of Frederick Douglass’s most famous address, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and the Clemente Courses, which help adult learners from disadvantaged communities to study literature, history, and the arts.
The Danforth Museum of Art has received funding to aid in its efforts to preserve its collections.
Finally, NEH support has a direct impact on K-12 instruction in our local communities. This includes a range of professional development for teachers—over 13,000 in the past five years—that shifts the way they work in their classrooms.
At the Framingham History Center, for example, Mass Humanities funded a summer seminar on Framingham and the Civil War (co-sponsored with Framingham State University), in which twenty history teachers from around MetroWest gathered to learn about the impact of the Civil War in Massachusetts and worked on new methods to integrate local history into their courses. According to FHC Executive Director Annie Murphy, state and federal humanities funding “reaches deeply into our communities and stimulates investment and engagement in cultural programs that might not have otherwise see the light of day.”

In all of these ways and more, the NEH and its sister cultural agencies provide funding and support that private charity could not sustain by itself. In fact, the reverse tends to be true: NEH grants are a mark of approval that attracts further funding from other agencies and private donors at a massive ratio. That enables our local cultural institutions to provide employment in our communities and enrich our understanding of our history and culture. John Adams once famously wrote that the American Revolution began in “the minds and the hearts of the people” long before shots were fired at Lexington. The NEH preserves the record of those minds and hearts for Americans today and into the future.

Joseph M. Adelman
Assistant Professor of history at Framingham State University.

Framingham Source Editor Susan Petroni

Susan Petroni Framingham Source Editor Email: editor@FraminghamSource.com Phone: 508-315-7176

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