Interview and video: National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Jon Parrish Peede speaks of the importance of the cultural fields as White House again recommends NEH closure
An abbreviated version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
Oh the humanities: As White House recommends closure, NEH chairman makes the case for the cultural fields
When people ask Jon Parrish Peede what the humanities are, he often answers with a question of his own:
“Do you like Ken Burns documentaries?”
“Everybody understands what we’re talking about, whether that’s baseball, the Civil War, the Vietnam War. … That is the humanities, and we fund him. In fact, we have funded every single film that Ken Burns has done since his first film on the Brooklyn Bridge. With the humanities … the anchor fields are certainly history, literature, but also political science, government, archaeology, anthropology. In the university, (it’s) what we think of is the liberal arts. It comes close to the arts: It’s criticism of arts, it’s evaluation of arts, it’s biography, but it’s not the creation of art. It’s not the creation of music, but it’s the history of music,” said Peede, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“It’s a branch of learning that basically says what has the history of people and culture been and who are we now? That, as much as anything, is what the humanities are about: where have we been and where are we going?”
Peede was going last month to Oklahoma City, Norman and Edmond to visit with representatives of local museums, universities and cultural centers about NEH grant opportunities. An independent federal agency created in 1965, the NEH is one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the country: It has awarded in excess of $5.7 billion through more than 65,000 grants in the past five decades, leading to the creation of books, films, museum exhibits and more, plus helping to preserve significant cultural resources.
“If they turn on PBS, they’re going to see a film that we’ve funded. If they listen to an NPR show, they’re quite often hearing a show we’ve funded or they’re hearing from a scholar whose work we supported. … Often, I think the challenge is, for the local public, they’re experiencing an NEH-funded world even if they’re not always aware,” Peede said during an interview at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma. “Part of me going around the country is to remind people what we’ve done in their own back yard.”
Over the past decade, the NEH has awarded about 60 grants in Oklahoma, totaling more than $10 million, with projects ranging from programming at Oklahoma Christian University’s McBride Center for Public Humanities and the preservation of the University of Central Oklahoma’s 800-item Fashion Museum collection to OU’s work with American Indian communities to digitize recordings of Native music to the conservation of more than 40,000 artifacts collected by the Edmond Historical Society & Museum.
“A great deal of that is funded through our state humanities partner. … Federally, we can make a catalytic investment. We can give that stamp of approval at the highest level of evaluation to say, ‘What we have here in the community is nationally distinctive.’ And so, it’s my pleasure to do that as chairman,” he said.
“We’re in the business of curiosity. … When we’re young, we all like to draw, we like to do finger painting, we like to dance, we like to do music … and the humanities are a way of rediscovering that. We have a lot of other fields that are about making a living. The humanities are about that, but much more: They’re about how to live lives, and so, in that sense, the humanities are not a luxury, they’re not frivolous, they’re not divisive. They’re essential.”
Plus, Peede said every federal dollar awarded from the NEH generates $5 in additional economic activity.
“So, it is a strong multiplier. There is strong economic development reason to do this, period,” he said. “In a lot of communities, cultural tourism, which occurs year after year after year, is anchored in art shows and festivals … so there’s a very, very compelling, strong, evidence-based argument for the funding of the arts and humanities.”
Still, when the Trump administration released last week its comprehensive federal budget for fiscal year 2020, it proposed for the third time in as many years shutting down the NEH and the National Endowment for the Arts. The White House requested that Congress appropriate $38 million to each agency for their orderly closures; both were funded at $155 million this year.
“Congress looked at the president’s (first) budget request for closure, and instead, gave us a budget increase. They looked at it a second year, a budget increase. … I don’t take that lightly,” Peede said during his Oklahoma stop.
“I think we’re in the midst of a time where a lot of people are talking about what do we want the direction of our nation to be? I do not believe you can answer that question if you do not know the foundation of the nation. If you don’t know our ideals, and at the same time you have to have a sense of when did we fall short of those ideals - how did we get to a Civil War, why was the Civil Rights Movement necessary, what was going on in our society? - so the humanities are a way to talk about that.”
At a time when a poll of college graduates revealed that 40 percent did not know that the House of Representatives has the authority to declare war, civics is an important humanity to bring back in schools, he said, while the field of ethics is increasingly vital as new technological frontiers like social media and artificial intelligence play a greater role in our lives. In a discussion with Peede, award-winning educator and author Wilfred McClay, who holds the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at OU, said that the humanities can help Americans navigate complex issues like racism, bigotry and white nationalism.
“The humanities are about the study of and the understanding of human things in human ways,” McClay said. “Although the issues in particular times change and have to be addressed on their terms, the humanities never go out of style. It’s still worth reading ‘Hamlet,’ it’s still worth reading the ‘(Epic of) Gilgamesh,’ it’s still worth reading Dante, you name it in the literary, philosophical, musical, artistic traditions. These things are all still relevant because human life is still the same and the human experience is still fundamentally the same. … I think we’re more essential than ever.”
For more information on the National Endowment for the Humanities, go to www.neh.gov.