The “Death of the Humanities” has been Grossly Exaggerated

Funding for the Humanities Will Continue


By: Joseph McNicholas, Ph.D., M.B.A.

Director, Research Opportunities

Franklin Humanities Research Center




On March 16, 2017, President Trump’s revealed his “skinny budget” to Congress.  In this first step of the federal budget season, the President proposed to completely de-fund the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment of the Arts, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, Title VI/Fulbright Programs, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


What does this dire news mean for the health of the humanities?  It is hard to make a prognosis from one data-point, of course.  Traditional measurements of the health of the humanities include the overall level of research output, the number of full-time faculty, the number of majors in the humanities, etc.  But dollars, and the politics behind the dollars, do shed some light on the well-being of the humanities.  My heterodox opinion is this: humanities have never been more important; that we, the citizens, know it; and that the humanities are quite likely to thrive in the coming years.  Consider the following:


National Politics.  Recently, a congressional staffer reminded me that, “The Congress always changes the blueprint provided them.  Now that Trump’s proposal is out, we know what the federal budget won’t be.”  At this point in his term, Trump is the least popular of all modern American presidents, including Gerald Ford. His budget proposals have outraged the American populace, energized opposition parties and movements, and alienated many in his own party.  The failure of the American Health Care Act has called into question the President’s leadership and power to influence legislation.  In short, it is becoming more clear to the Congress that this is a President whose policies and budget proposals can be taken with a grain of salt.


Outstanding positioning by the NEH, the NEA and their allies.  Regardless of the “culture wars,” these agencies have long enjoyed strong bi-partisan support in Congress.  Why?  Because they have worked hard to ensure that their funding touches every state and has buy-in at the local level.  The NEH works closely and provides funding for State Humanities Councils.  It also hosts travelling exhibitions, like Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War, and makes awards to promote history in each state through programs like Preservation and Access grants.  Further, NEH initiatives, included in each request for grant proposals, focus on bi-partisan values.  The Common Good initiative promotes projects that put the humanities in the public sphere and the Standing Together initiative encourages projects related to war and military service.  Each NEH award identifies an explicit goal of providing access to the products of NEH grants by making them available broadly for free, which aids in outreach to rural and underprivileged populations.[1]


State and Local Politics. The effect of this broad-based approach is that each Representative and Senator has constituents who have benefited either directly or indirectly from the NEH.  In recent weeks, these constituents, whether at universities, performing arts centers, libraries, historical societies, state humanities councils, schools, arts cooperatives, or other concerned organizations have made their voices heard.  Many of our professional associations, and especially the National Humanities Association and Americans for the Arts, are organizing outreach campaigns and teaching us how to advocate for the arts and humanities.


Private Support. Federal funding is not the only metric of the health of the humanities. Rather, public funding, combined with private sources, supports a rich ecosystem for humanistic enquiry.  Trump’s challenge to the NEH, the NEA and others, however, has forced us to re-think our own engagement with, and valuation of, the arts and humanities.  Fortunately, many private individuals, foundations, corporate donors and other organizations are thinking along with us.  Their combined expenditures exceed federal contributions to the arts and humanities.  One funder alone, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, expends more on the humanities per year than the federal government.  According to HumanitiesIndicators.Org, foundations gave $402 million for humanities-related activities compared to about $150 million from the National Endowment for the Humanities.[2]  While private support cannot fully replace public spending, the robust and engaged missions of these sources of support, augur well for the continued vigor of the humanities.


Adversity builds character.  At least that’s what my soccer coach used to tell me.  The recent budget proposal has challenged us as individuals to better express the value of the humanities to our own lives.  We are called upon as a community of readers and thinkers to articulate the value, in today’s world, of this broad and diverse area of human endeavor.  We have been invited to make our work even more relevant to our communities, to our educational system, and to our government, as well.  It is up to us as individuals, as communities, and as organizations to make sure the arts and humanities are as animated, bold and salubrious as we want them to be. It is time to stand by our guns, or at least by our books.


So, what happens when each member of Congress hears from their constituents as individuals, as donors, and as organizations?  What happens when we tell stories about the outsized effects these small federal investments have on rural populations, on local histories, on children, on scholars, and on communities of all kinds?  What happens when leaders hear from us that “American values,” that ethics and intercultural understanding, that individual purpose and social identity stem from humanistic understanding?  I think what happens is that the NEH and the NEA gets the funding it needs and deserves.  More than that, I think we deepen our own commitment to this great adventure called the arts and humanities.



Update: On May 1, 2017, the House Appropriations Committee released the fiscal year 2017 Omnibus Appropriations bill which includes funding for the remaining 11 annual appropriations bills through the end of the fiscal year, September 30, 2017.  Funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities includes a $2 million increase over FY 2016 and provides  $150 million for NEH.



[1] See “Republicans Start Lining Up to Fight for the N.E.A. and N.E.H,” New York Times, March 17, 2017.  Accessed online at

[2] 2012 numbers.

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