Closer Readings Commentary

“The humanities are…the world's best hope”

Did you ever wonder what the “humanities” are?

Did you realize that the federal government provides financial support for the humanities?

Did you know that this support is only fifty years old?

On Tuesday, September 29, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)—the independent federal agency dedicated to supporting the humanities—will begin the yearlong celebration of its 50th anniversary.  

What are the humanities?

If we look at the enabling legislation for NEH we find this helpful statement:

The term “humanities” includes, but is not limited to, the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.

The founding of NEH and the case for the humanities

The story of how the National Endowment for the Humanities came into existence is a fascinating and instructive one for all those interested in the role of humanities in America. To help students understand this history, EDSITEment staff put together a student interactive (Launchpad): The Great Society and the Case for the Humanities

At the time when Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs, especially the war on poverty and civil rights legislation, dominated most of the domestic agenda and the Vietnam War was being escalated abroad, the nation’s lawmakers and the president also established a federal agency exclusively devoted to supporting the humanities.

Why? What was the underlying rationale for this agency? The answer lies in the widely-held belief with roots going back to the nation’s founding, that the American experiment in self-government required a thoughtful and informed citizenry.

Several scholarly humanities organizations made the argument that the study of the natural sciences and technological progress on its own cannot supply the moral and intellectual guidance that America as nation needs. Instead, the Report of the Humanities boldly asserted: “democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens” and “to know the best that has been thought and said in former times can make us wiser than we otherwise might be, and in this respect the humanities are not merely our, but the world's best hope.”

In this exercise, student read four key documents that make a case for federal support of the humanities and answer a series of text-dependent questions so that they will grasp the thinking behind the agency’s founding. At the conclusion of this activity, students are asked to consider whether this argument is still a good one.

A special issue of Humanities

In the September/October issue of Humanities magazine, NEH’s bimonthly publication, there are a number of articles devoted to some highlights from NEH’s fifty-year history.

The issue opens with NEH Chairman, William “Bro” Adams’s reflection on the history of the agency and a synoptic overview of the agency's grants and achievements. 

Among the most famous of all NEH grants is the one made to support  the legendary King Tut exhibit, which traveled America and the world in the ‘70s. This exhibit created the notion of the museum “blockbuster” that has since transformed art museums as we know them. The article offers the fascinating backstory of the exhibit that took place in the diplomatic rooms of Washington and Egypt.

Another article shows how Congress decided to create humanities councils in each of the states and territories in order to better realize the NEH's mission to reach all the people of America with programming.

Finally, in the end year of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, there is an article on how, with NEH support, Ken Burns put together the path-breaking series that changed the way we think about documentaries.

Celebrating 50 Years

The specially designed website created to celebrate NEH’s half century, NEH:Celebrating 50 Years, highlights some five decades of noteworthy NEH grants. Each grant is identified by an attractive image and introduced through a short, informative essay. Among those grants featured are: Chronicling America, Created Equal, EDSITEment, the Online State Encyclopedias, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Sort through the grants by subject category: digital, history, film, literature, or art. After you’ve read about a particular grant, you can share it through several social media options, including tweeting or posting to Facebook. The site is scalable to all devices, as well, so that you and your students can easily access it in class or on the go.

50th Anniversary Digital Event

 Last but not least, mark your calendar for this Tuesday, September 29, when you are invited to join NEH supporters everywhere on social media to celebrate NEH’s founding day with the NEH 50th Anniversary Digital Event.