It is perhaps unseemly to make an argument for the National Endowment of the Humanities at a time when food is literally being taken out of the mouths of house-bound seniors. But though it may be that the loss of the NEH (and its sister program, the NEA) is less devastating than dozens of other programs slated to be cut, still I must note what a terrible loss to our country it will be.
Forget for a second that 15 Pulitzer-Prize winning books were promoted by NEH grants. Forget that Ken Burns’ The Civil War— a landmark in publicly-broadcast scholarship– owes its existence to them, or that The Valley of the Shadow used a grant to put together a groundbeaking digital media project that provides a remarkably visceral insight into the lives of soldiers and civilians during that war. Forget that the NEH provides immeasurable services to teachers and a profound menu of resources to students. Forget even that for years it has continually supported Frontline, where one of America’s finest collection of journalists do independent, non-partisan work on critical subjects that cable news outlets largely ignore. These– and all the other projects the NEH helps support– are worth the pittance the average American pays into the program each year. (Seriously. On average, a taxpayer pays about 50 cents a year for the NEH.) But put aside all that.
Instead, what I want to impress upon people in this post is that unless you’re J.K. Rowling or the Coen Brothers, working in the humanities is not particularly lucrative. By and large, people do it because they have a love for them, and because they understand the importance of the humanities in fostering a culturally-vibrant, well-educated electorate that better understands the importance of continually revitalizing the very thing that makes us who we are– our love of beauty, our human spirit, our need to create– within a society increasingly obsessed with profits and utility. Most writers, then, choose to live hard-wrought existences in which they spend most of their times working in other industries. Scholars in the humanities choose to spend their 20s studying within a system approximating indentured servitude, and then are far more likely to beat their heads against an adjunct wall that provides poverty-level wages for massive amounts of work (with the expectation that they do even more work to publish enough to even qualify to be plucked from the morass for one of a dwindling number or tenure-line positions). And journalists– oh, those reviled journalists, to whom all the ills of society are heaped!– by and large choose to work for peanuts, often find themselves in dangerous places, and work entirely at the whim of their employers and the tastes of an increasingly critical public. Is it any wonder that some of our nation’s best minds do not, and instead choose to suckle at the teat of the Goldman Sachs of the world?
Because of this, I can not understate what a lifeline the NEH is to the culture of our nation. We should be doing more to foster the things that inform us of the truth and beauty of our world, not less. This isn’t about bad poems and crunchy hipsters who don’t want to work for a living. It isn’t about me complaining that my book cost me thousands of dollars more than it earned me (I knew well the difficulties I would face in simply breaking even on the venture). No, it’s about preserving, fostering, and exposing the best of us– the things that make us a people. And it’s about supporting those who have dedicated their lives to helping do just that.
As a guidepost, consider the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project, a program that put thousands of people to work, fostered the careers of writers like Zora Neal Hurston, John Steinbeck, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, Stetson Kennedy, and Studs Terkel (a personal hero of mine, and a great influence upon An American Song and one of the non-fiction projects I am currently working on), and preserved invaluable pieces of American heritage– most notably the Slave Narrative Collection, a compilation of slave narratives told to researchers by the former slaves themselves. Further, its employees took and collected a massive trove of photographs, performed invaluable historiographical work, advanced American archeological endeavors, helped legitimize the field of oral history, and improved the nation’s collection of maps. And as a byproduct, the program empowered a needed counterpart to modernist disconnection from the non-fictive, fostering a documentary style that would soon become a hallmark of American art. All at a time when most workers in the humanities were staring down lives of abject poverty, or at best, careers in fields far-removed from creative enterprise.
It should be said, of course, that the FWP was not perfect. Field workers were often documenting the lives of sharecroppers, migrants, the racially- and economically-0ppressed, and the hardest-hit victims of the depression, and as such many embraced unfettered communism (including Stalinism) as a means of addressing their plights. (Though it must also be noted that the majority of FWP works were not political, and those that were tended not to advocate for their ideologies directly.) Despite these leanings, the vast majority of FWP workers were white– including those who compiled the slave narratives– meaning that a decidedly non-inclusive subject matter and interpretation generally prevailed despite leftist sentiments. And because of intense opposition from conservatives, it inadvertently led to the increased power of HUAC, a heightened public distrust of intellectuals, and fuel for a three-decade defacto moratorium on serious public investment in the arts that would only be reversed by the charter of the the NEH and NEA. (Sound familiar?)
Eventually the program was shelved at the federal level, and by 1943 state support also dried up. It was never really meant as an arts project, after all (Roosevelt saw it as one more way to put people to work, and only about .05% of the WPA budget went to it and its sister programs: the Federal Art Project, and the Federal Theater Project), and was always going to be a casualty in defense of more important programs.
But the investment was well-reaped nonetheless. In stark relief remains an illustration of the dividends of publicly-sponsored work in the humanities.
I suspect that just like the FWP was, the NEH and NEA are likely to be sacrificed in the fight for more critical social programs. Against a barrage of cruel cuts to programs vital to the health and security of America’s most vulnerable, Democrats will be hesitant to complain about things like books and art and public broadcasting, lest public opinion brand them wanton crybabies who value their beloved fru-fru at the same level as the lives of constituents. It will be hard to blame them.
But so too will it be a tragedy when our culture is subsequently denied work that would have benefited its people, and denied the labors of those who might otherwise be compelled to direct their energies elsewhere. And whether they know how or why or even if it has happened, all Americans will be the lesser for the loss.