Humanities Institute

The National Endowment for Humanities: Supporting UT Researchers and Creating Texas Public Educational Opportunities for Decades

Wed, April 26, 2017
The National Endowment for Humanities: Supporting UT Researchers and Creating Texas Public Educational Opportunities for Decades
National Endowment for the Humanities Logo

In his 2018 federal budget plan, President Trump has proposed fully defunding the National Endowment for the Humanities, one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States. Trump’s budget plan marks the first time that a United States president has requested the elimination of the endowment. A look at the history of how NEH has helped to advance faculty research and institutional initiatives at the University of Texas can provide insight into what is at stake for UT if the Endowment were to be partially or fully defunded.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), along with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), were enacted in 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation proclaiming that “[any] advanced civilization” must put importance on the arts, humanities, and cultural awareness. Although both endowments comprise a small fraction of the $1.1 trillion of annual spending, grants from these independent federal agencies have created invaluable opportunities for researchers in the humanities, writers, and artists for over fifty years.

NEH works to promote “excellence in the humanities” and to convey “the lessons of history to all Americans.” Toward this end, the organization awards competitive grants to cultural institutions, such as  archives, libraries, universities, colleges, public television, museums, radio stations, and distinctive scholars. These grants aim to “strengthen teaching and learning in schools and colleges, facilitate research and original scholarship, provide opportunities for lifelong learning, preserve and provide access to cultural and education resources, and strengthen the institutional base of the humanities.” Since the conception of NEH, these grants have supported new, critical perspectives on a range of problems, questions, and ways of learning, and have promoted a spirit of discovery in the American public. NEH grants have supported the publication of seven thousand books, 16 of which were Pulitzer Prize winning books and 20 of which received the Bancroft Prize. In addition, NEH grants have supported projects such as The Civil War documentary by Ken Burns, which was viewed by 38 million people, and the conservation of millions of historic newspapers via the revolutionary United States Newspaper Project.

In the most recent years, the NEH has recognized humanities scholarship in Texas through its support of many University of Texas affiliated research projects, including research relating to American artistic identity, sound technologies, African-American and Latin American political thought, biblical Hebrew, dance history, and visualization of the humanities. Associate Professor Matthew Cohen’s NEH-funded book-length study (2017) “Thinking across Cultures in Early America” seeks to “revitalize the discussion of inter-cultural relations in early American studies.” Another NEH-funded book-length study (2017-2018), “We Were All on Those Trains: Poetry and the March 2004 Madrid Train Bombing”, by Jill Robbins, a from UT-Austin professor, examines the “poetic texts that responded to the March 11, 2004 train bombings in Madrid, Spain." Daina Ramey Berry, Associate Professor, completed her recent NEH-funded study (2014) “The Value of Human Chatte; from Preconception to Postmortem,” in which she explored the price of people via “market transactions and appraisals” of enslaved individuals in the “American domestic slave trade from before birth to after death.”

NEH has helped to support scholarly production at UT for decades. Bernth Lindfors, a distinguished Professor Emeritus, received an NEH grant in 1972 for research on “Nigerian Popular Literature in English”. Lindfors studied the motifs, ongoing themes, and stereotypes of Nigerian literature, explaining their sociological and literary significance. In 1980, Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature, produced three 18-minute documentary films with an NEH grant and a 50-page curriculum guide on social and political change in the Middle East through the eyes of “three women revolutionaries.” Her project, “A Curriculum Unit in Social History: Reformers & Revolution-aries; Middle Eastern Women,” was created for secondary and college education within anthropology and history courses. Jeffrey L. Meikle, Professor of American Studies, received two NEH grants in 1984 and 1995 for “An Interdisciplinary History of the Significance of Plasticity in American Culture” and “A Cultural History of Design in the United States.”

In addition to these individual grants, institutional-based grants support UT institutions such as the Blanton Museum of Art and the Briscoe Center for American History. In 2005, NEH and the National Science Foundation announced 13 fellowships and 26 institutional grants for the Documenting Endangered Languages partnership, an effort to “preserve records of key languages before they become extinct.” Under this rubric, Joel Sherzer, Professor Emeritus, conducting research in linguistic anthropology, received a grant for the project, “DELAMAN 3: The Third Annual Meeting of the Digital Endangered Languages and Musics Archive Network,” which “support[s] a global network's conference to consider common methodological, technical, and ethical issues in preserving a useful record of the world's endangered languages.”

Other institutional-based grants from the NEH support the virtual museum Texas Beyond History,which is partnered with the Department of Anthropology and the Briscoe Center at UT. The virtual museum’s five-year project, Prehistoric Texas, chronicles Texas’ “aboriginal original cultural legacy in a series of illustrated online educational ‘exhibits.’” This online exhibit contains “interactive presentations,” which provides opportunities for learning to the public, schoolchildren, and university students.

Since 1973, the state affiliate of NEH, Humanities Texas (HT) supports and oversees public programs in philosophy, literature, history, and various disciplines in the humanities. HT, a non-profit organization, aims to build up Texas communities through “cultivating the knowledge and judgment that representative democracy demands of its citizens.” They strive to educate the public while maintaining careful dispensation of funding resources used for grants, traveling exhibitions, and teacher institutes. HT’s teacher institutes offer teachers “the opportunity to study with leading scholars, exploring topics at the heart of the state’s social studies and language arts curricula.” Other opportunities offered by HT for teaching recognition include the annual “Outstanding Teaching Awards,” which celebrates 15 outstanding classroom educators and recognizes that a successful educational system depends on its nurturing teachers.

In 1978, The Texas Humanities Resource Center (THRC) was established in Arlington, later moving to Austin, with the aim “to improve humanities teaching in Texas schools.” Over the past few decades, THRC has “organized and circulated exhibitions, audiovisual programs, and print materials” for cultural and educational community purposes, created electronic educational resources for schools, and accumulated a rental library of more than 400 videos, films, and slide programs. In 2003, THRC and their developed materials were “fully integrated within Humanities Texas’s general operations.” Since then, HT has continued to create humanities resources for education.

In December 2015, the University of Texas was delighted to celebrate the 50th anniversary of NEH and NEA with visits from their respective directors, Chairman Jane Chu and Chairman William D. Adams. A talk with the directors was held at the LBJ School for Public Policy in honor of President Johnson, who sponsored the act on the endowments in 1965. The directors discussed President Johnson’s vision to promote progress and scholarship in the humanities and the arts in the United States. They also outlined the work these organizations have done in promoting cultural projects across the 50 states. In his introduction, President of the University Greg Fenves acknowledged how our “community has been made better by the legislation that was signed half a century ago by this school’s namesake and this building’s namesake, President Lyndon Baines Johnson.” The past fellowships grants that the NEH and NEA have generously endowed to the UT have helped to preserve American culture and the historical legacy of the United States. NEA director Jane Chu remarked during the event that “the humanities are more important to the American democratic political culture than ever.” Endowment-supported research across the country has resulted in 19 Pulitzer Prizes and 18 Bancroft Prizes. As NEH director William D. Adams noted, it would be difficult to imagine the arts and humanities community without these two endowments. 

The above article was contributed by Jennifer Murphy, a Senior at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in English and Journalism, with additional research and writing contributed by HI staff.

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