The NEH at Fifty: On the Fate and Fortunes of Public Goods

Wednesday, September 30, 2015
Humanities Writ Large

Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead delivered the keynote address at the "Democracy and the Humanities Symposium" commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the National Endowment for the Humanities at Loyola University Maryland on September 25, 2015. His speech is presented here in its entirety.

I wish a happy fiftieth birthday to the National Endowment for the Humanities. For fifty years, the NEH has helped scholars open the human record to new understanding, made our shared past accessible to a broad democratic public, and in partnership with state councils, kept the humanities alive at the local level in all fifty states, reminding us that history has happened everywhere and bears the imprint of us all.

Fifty years back, this familiar agency was a profoundly new thing, and the meaning of that novelty is my subject today. Let’s remember how it came to be. The agency was officially authorized when President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation creating National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts in a Rose Garden ceremony on September 29, 1965. This legislation implemented recommendations from a National Commission on the Humanities that had been set in motion in 1963 by three scholarly organizations: the American Council of Learned Societies, the Council of Graduate Schools in America, and the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa. The Commission’s Report, published in 1964, speaks to a nation in confident possession of superpower status, a status that brings new risks and new choices

Global dominance can take two forms, the report explains. One is a dominance of economic might, military power, and technological superiority. Alternatively, together with economic and military supremacy, a nation could exert a different order of power—in the ideals and image of civilization it projects—in which case other nations would eagerly follow its high lead. Get enough economic and military superiority and you are at best a muscled-up hegemon; add the humanities and you could become an aspirational civilization. That’s the opportunity before the United States, and seizing it is not guaranteed. How to assure this better outcome? What’s needed is help advancing “things of the spirit”—help on the artistic and humanistic side.

As the co-chair of a recent humanities commission, I marvel that when a comparable group sat down in 1963-64, they arrived at a single recommendation: the creation of a federal agency to support humanistic activity, federally funded but with independent decision-making power. President Johnson embraced this proposal in a speech at Brown University in September 1964. Within a year, the legislation had passed with large bipartisan majorities, the bill was signed, and the NEH was born.

So the question I ask myself is, how did it happen that a proposal in this exact form was so persuasive to both academic and political leaders in the 1964-65 season? There is a relatively easy answer. The 1964 report is jealously mindful of the creation of the National Science Foundation in the early years of the Cold War, and science envy is the proximate cause for wanting a foundation of our own. But the idea draws on forces and developments reaching well beyond the NSF, and I’d like to share the story of how I came to understand them.

Please be patient as I take you on a humanist’s excursion. Last summer—this is how I spent my summer vacation!—I read Sven Beckert’s book Empire of Cotton. Beckert traces the long global history of the industrialization of cotton around the globe across five centuries, underlining the dependence of free markets at one end with coerced labor at the other. Once, the labor of slaves on plantations in the American South supplied the cotton to English, then also New England mills. Three or four decades after the Civil War, cotton manufacture moved to the Southern states that had once been sites of cotton growing, with women and children cast in laboring roles.