Richard H. Brodhead: What eliminating arts funding would mean for WV

By By Richard H. Brodhead
Official portrait of Richard H. Brodhead, PhD, President of Duke University, June 2010

Last year, a documentary series about the experiences of West Virginia veterans in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War was created by two filmmakers, both veterans themselves.

They used archival footage and on-camera interviews to broaden our appreciation of what it means to serve in the military and how we can assist veterans as they return home.

This innovative way to create greater understanding was made possible by the West Virginia Humanities Council and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The president’s federal budget proposes to eliminate funding for the NEH and the National Endowment for the Arts. Congress will soon vote on the budget, with important consequences for our nation.

It is a mark of her leadership that Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., along with 23 of her Senate colleagues, has expressed strong support for these agencies. Sen. Capito recognizes that the programs supported by the NEA and NEH are not luxuries that benefit only an elite few. In fact, these programs bring meaning to ordinary people across our nation.

Furthermore, in reaching out to rural and disadvantaged communities, they bring life-changing experiences to people who can’t visit a museum or a concert hall.

The documentary series about veterans, part of a national NEH program called the Standing Together Initiative, is just one example. Successful programs by the NEH have made it clear that the humanities and the arts — literature, music, dance, visual arts, drama, filmmaking — provide fulfilling vehicles for expression, understanding and engagement for veterans, their families and those who care for them. Another program will bring 25 West Virginia schoolteachers together this July to learn about Appalachian history, literature, music and culture, helping them become even better educators.

The NEH and the NEA were established in 1965 by a bipartisan act of Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. At that time, America was beginning to become aware that global leadership should go beyond economic and military power to set high ideals for thought and culture.

The 1965 legislation declares, “An advanced civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone, but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future.”

Over the years, while changing national tides have sometimes posed hard questions about how the NEH and NEA should fulfill that mission, no president has proposed eliminating them altogether — until now. It is a short-sighted goal. Beyond enrichment of daily life, the arts and humanities provide an essential set of skills that serve people well in every field of endeavor.

It was my privilege to co-chair a recent commission that reaffirmed the vital importance of the humanities and social sciences to our nation’s system of education, economy and national security. This commission was requested by members of Congress — two senators and two members of the House of Representatives, from both parties — and was convened by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The voices that rose up in that commission were not only those of scholars and university presidents.

We heard passionate defenses of the humanities — of history, literature, philosophy — from individuals like Jim McNerney, the former CEO of Boeing, who explained that, in his company, the engineers who rise to positions of leadership are those who have additional skills in communication and analysis — skills learned by studying these fields.

We heard Gen. and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who served in military and diplomatic roles in Afghanistan, assert that foreign languages and cross-cultural understanding are critical elements in America’s military strategy.

For all their importance, the investment our nation makes in these essential fields is modest. Last year, the NEH and NEA each received 46 cents in federal support for each American — less than a penny per week.

This sum represents only 0.02 percent of federal spending, a fraction of what other developed nations spend on arts and culture. And yet, with this money, the NEA and NEH are able to make thousands of grants, distributed through all 50 states, that support cultural programs, education, preservation, research and outreach.

This modest investment that creates such powerful benefits is now under threat.

This should not be a political decision: These programs reflect all of America, and they serve all of America, bringing history and arts to local communities everywhere. It is a wise investment to continue the funding that brings the best of our cultural heritage to support veterans, teachers — and all of us.

Richard H. Brodhead is the president of Duke University.

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