When budget season hits the federal government and the debate begins about where and how to cut spending, a perennial favorite target is the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and its sister organization, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The NEH, created in 1965 by Congress, is one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States. Among its many responsibilities, this agency provides extensive financial support in the form of grants to universities for research, classroom education, newer web-based initiatives such as online PhD courses, public programs and preservation of the humanities. When the federal budget is reviewed and priorities must be set, many members of Congress look at funding for humanities as an item with less vital importance than funding for infrastructure improvements and the defense department.
The NEH says that, according to the 1965 National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act, the term “humanities” includes, but is not limited to, the study of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.
The NEH fiscal year 2010 budget of $167.5 million was reduced to $146.0 million in fiscal year 2012. According to National Humanities Alliance, funding for the NEH’s grant programs in 2012 is equivalent to a 40 percent drop compared to 1994 when compared in real dollars. According to the Modern Language Association (MLA), in addition to a reduction in NEH funding, budget for federal programs for international education and foreign language were cut by 40 percent and the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education experienced a $140 million budget cut.
In parallel to the funding challenges of the NEH, funding cuts for other programs such as the Fulbright-Hays international education programs and the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Program which award financial support to graduate students in international fields and the humanities result in fewer scholarships for students in these fields. Universities receive funding from other sources beyond the federal government, though, and some academic experts suggest that federal funding cuts have not devastated the study of humanities on the university level.
Elizabeth D. Capaldi, executive vice president and provost at Arizona State University, in an article in the November-December 2011 edition of Academe magazine, a publication of the American Association of University Professors, said, “Some disciplines bring in more money to the university than their base costs. Cutting a discipline that is generating revenue is not sensible in a time of declining resources. Humanities and social sciences are net revenue generators in universities, in part because of lower salaries in these disciplines. These disciplines also generate a larger number of credit hours as a result of general education requirements filled by courses in the humanities and social sciences.”
While funding cuts make it more difficult for universities to provide a wide array of humanities programs, the evidence is still not complete to prove that federal funding is required to make the study of humanities a vital element to a university education.