National Endowment for the Humanities

views updated Jun 08 2018


On September 29, 1965 U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation enacted by the eighty-ninth Congress creating the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities, an independent federal agency consisting of two separate but cooperating organizations, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Through this legislation tangible expression was given to the concept that support of the arts and the humanities is in the national interest. The formation of the NEH lent credence to the belief that the humanities stimulate reflection on the values that Americans hold as a nation and as individuals, and that they offer, through their common historical orientation, interpretations of the process by which cultures and societies have reached their present complex form.

The National Endowment for the Humanities is a public body whose purpose is to bring the sub-stance of the humanities to bear on the mainstream of American thinking and life. It attempts to do so by increasing knowledge, improving the competence of scholars and teachers, and improving public understanding of the humanities through education. The humanities include a broad list of fields, including literature, history, languages and linguistics, archaeology, comparative religion, philosophy, jurisprudence, journalism, and art history and criticism.


The NEH accomplishes its mission primarily by making grants and fellowships dedicated to supporting research, education, preservation, and public programs in the humanities. Most NEH grants are awarded to cultural institutions such as museums, historical societies, libraries, universities, and public television and radio stations. Many grants and fellowships are also made to individuals to support such activities as the writing of a book or the production of a film. The NEH does not fund creative or performing arts; the National Endowment for the Arts supports these activities.

Any citizen of the United States or a permanent resident who has lived in the United States for more than three years can apply for an NEH grant, although most grants are given to institutions. NEH grants are awarded on a competitive basis. Each application is assessed by panels of experts outside the endowment. The National Council on the Humanities meets three times a year to review the applications and outside assessments. The council makes recommendations to the NEH chairperson, who makes the final decisions.

The NEH runs numerous grant programs. Some grants are awarded annually or on a running basis, some are awarded only once. Some grants are only available to institutions; others only to individuals. Representative NEH grant programs include the Preservation Assistance Grant of up to $5,000 to help libraries, museums, and historical societies increase their capacity to preserve their humanities collections; Schools for a New Millennium grants of up to $100,000 for educational institutions wishing to improve elementary, middle, and high school teaching of humanities; Institutional Grants of up to $25,000 for historically black, Hispanic-serving, and tribal colleges and universities that wish to improve the teaching of humanities; and the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Initiative Grant for a project relating to the history and accomplishments of this expedition.

The NEH has funded hundreds of important educational and preservation projects, as well as books, films, and exhibitions since its founding. In 1969 an NEH grant to the University of Virginia supported a project to produce the first comprehensive edition of The Papers of George Washington. In 1971 the NEH began funding the compilation of the groundbreaking Dictionary of American Regional English. In 1976 the NEH funded the preparation and publication of The States and the Nation, a multivolume series of state histories published in honor of the American bicentennial. In 1980 the NEH awarded a grant to the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center in Claremont, California, to make archival photographs of the Dead Sea scrolls. In 1988 Voices and Visions, a thirteen-part television series on American poetry, aired on public television stations with NEH support.

Throughout its history the NEH has helped historians, literary critics, and other scholars research, write, and publish books. Many NEH supported books have gone on to win Pulitzer Prizes and other major awards. The NEH helped fund the Pulitzer Prizewinning Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (1998) by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. The NEH also helped fund David M. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prizewinning Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 192945 (1999). In addition, the NEH funds the production, distribution, and broadcast of numerous documentary films. Filmmaker Ken Burns's documentaries The Brooklyn Bridge (1982), The Life and Times of Huey Long (1986), The Civil War (1990), and Baseball (1994) were all made and broadcast with NEH support. The NEH also supported the Academy Award nominated Scottsboro: An American Tragedy (2001), a documentary film written and directed by Barak Goodman.

NEH-funded projects that were underway in the early 2000s included the United States Newspaper Program, a major effort to locate, catalog, and preserve newspapers published in the United States since the eighteenth century; and the Papers Projects, which funded a number of projects to collect and publish the papers of American presidents and other historical and literary figures. The NEH was also actively funding numerous online humanities projects, including the Mystic Seaport's Exploring Amistad website; the Academy of American Poets' Online Poetry Classroom, and Indiana University's Prehistoric Puzzles website. Descriptions of NEH-funded projects, and other NEH news and information, are published in the bimonthly magazine Humanities.

Since 1997, the NEH has presented annual National Humanities Medals to individuals or groups who have helped deepen people's understanding of the humanities. Notable past winners of the National Humanities Medal have included Quincy Jones, Garrison Keillor, Jim Lehrer, August Wilson, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Garry Wills, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Since 1972 the NEH has also selected an outstanding individual to give the prestigious Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, delivered every spring in Washington, D.C. The Jefferson Lecture, which includes a $10,000 honorarium, is awarded to an important American scholar who has demonstrated the ability to communicate about the humanities in a accessible and appealing way. Notable Jefferson lecturers have included poet Robert Penn Warren (1974), novelist Saul Bellow (1977), novelist Toni Morrison (1996), and playwright Arthur Miller (2001).

Organizational Structure

The NEH is composed of four divisions and three offices. Divisions include the Preservation and Access Division, the Public Programs Division, the Research Division, and the Education Division. Offices include the Challenge Grants Office, the Office of Federal-State Partnership, and the Enterprise Office. The Office of Federal-State Partnership links NEH with fifty-six regional humanities councils located across the United States and in Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Each regional council funds humanities programs in its area. The responsibility of the Enterprise Office is to raise funds for Endowment projects and initiatives, to forge relationships with other federal and state agencies and with private organizations, and to implement special programs.

The NEH is directed by a chairperson who is appointed by the president of the United States for a four-year term. The chairperson is advised by the National Council on the Humanities, a group of twenty-six private citizens who are appointed by the president and approved by the United States Senate. The NEH chairperson and council coordinate and advise the endowments for the arts and the humanities.

Financial Support

In order to utilize as much private money as possible in its activities, the endowment is authorized by Congress to receive gifts from private sources for unrestricted purposes. These funds are then matched equally with funds conditionally appropriated by Congress for this purpose. This provision was amended in 1968 to also permit the matching of restricted gifts for purposes recommended by the council and approved by the chairperson.

History and Development

Before the creation of the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities, the effort to secure federal support for the arts had gone on for about a century, and minor support for the arts did exist in many departments of the government. The most conspicuous success prior to 1965 was the establishment in 1964 of an arts councilwithout funds. In contrast, government support for the sciences grew rapidly after World War II, first through research support, particularly from the military, and then through the establishment and funding of the National Science Foundation. The results created an imbalance in the universities and collegesdespite the evident benefits for education in general. Federal funds were relatively abundant for the sciences, but they were entirely lacking for the humanities and the arts. In an attempt to rectify this situation, several members of Congress introduced legislation calling for increased support of the humanities, but none was successful.

In 1963 the American Council of Learned Societies, the Council of Graduate Schools in the United States, and the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa Society sponsored the Commission on the Humanities to study the needs of the humanities. The members of this group included university professors and presidents, business and professional men, and school administrators. It accepted in principle the inseparability of the humanities and the arts, but concentrated on the humanities in their educational context. This commission's report, issues in the spring of 1964, received wide distribution and had considerable effect.

In Congress, Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island and Representative Frank Thompson Jr., of New Jersey, who had led the effort to secure meaningful support for the arts, took the opportunity offered by this increased attention to the humanities and introduced new bills to include the arts and the humanities in a single organization. The joining of congressional and public support for both the humanities and the arts resulted in the passage of the bill and the establishment of the foundation.

The NEH, along with the National Endowment for the Arts, came under attack beginning in the 1980s as some citizens and public officials questioned the quality and appropriateness of projects funded by the endowments. President Ronald Reagan established a Presidential Task Force on the Arts and the Humanities in 1981 to develop "ideas to stimulate increased private giving for cultural activities." The Task Force, however, recommended that the NEH and NEA continue public funding of humanities and art projects. From 1965 through 1998 the NEH awarded more than $3 billion in fellowships and grants.


National Endowment for the Humanities. 2001. Rediscovering America: Thirty-five Years of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Humanities.

internet resource

National Endowment for the Humanities. 2002. <>.

Barnaby C. Keeney

Revised by

Judith J. Culligan

National Endowment for the Humanities

views updated May 21 2018


NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES. A federal role in culture received early endorsement with the creation of the Library of Congress in 1800 and with Congress's acceptance in 1836 of the Smithson bequest that eventually became the Smithsonian Institution. In the twentieth century New Deal–era legislation creating the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided support for artists, writers, dramatists, and musicians. In so doing the federal government stamped cultural activity with a public purpose.

In 1954 Health Education and Welfare Undersecretary Nelson Rockefeller crafted a bill with the support of the Eisenhower administration that would create a national arts council. Modeled after the national arts council of Great Britain, the bill failed but established the concept of a national foundation. President John Kennedy marked the arts as a priority early in his administration, while private foundations had begun advocating for a national arts foundation. In 1964 a blue-ribbon commission organized by the American Council of Learned Societies, Phi Beta Kappa, and the Council of Graduate Schools in the United States issued a report calling for the creation of a national humanities foundation. This momentum culminated with the passage in 1965 of the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities Act. Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island introduced the bill in Congress for the administration. While the first appropriation for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) was modest ($2.9 million and $5.9 million, respectively), of real importance was the public recognition of a linkage among the vitality of civilization, the health of democracy, and a federal role. President Lyndon Johnson's choice to head the NEH was Barnaby Keeney, president of Brown University.

From its inception the National Endowment for the Humanities functioned as a competitive grant-making foundation with programmatic funding categories (these change periodically), funding levels, and application guidelines. The NEH definition of the humanities is congressionally mandated and includes the core disciplines of history, literature, and philosophy and the humanistic aspects of other forms of knowledge. The legislation asserts a "relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life." The agency early adopted an outside review process made up of rotating panels of professionals and experts who review each submitted application. The final award of funds is subject to preliminary approval of the National Council on the Humanities with ultimate authority resting in the chairperson of the agency. The chairperson and membership of the national council are presidential appointees subject to the confirmation of the Senate, and they serve for a set term of years or until replaced. The NEH is by far the most significant humanities funding source in the United States. It supports major research projects, centers for advanced study, research fellowships, and grants-in-aid of scholarship. The American Council for Learned Societies was the first recipient in 1972.

Federal funding fills a critical gap in cultural resources in the United States. The true value of NEH, beyond the numbers of projects it funds or the audience figures it can point to, is its role in nurturing scholarship and public learning. The state humanities councils are an indispensable complement to the agency. At the instigation of Congress, between 1971 and 1979 NEH organized state-based programs in each of the fifty states. Begun as an experiment, the councils soon evolved into independent nonprofit grant-making organizations that function as partners of the NEH at the state and local levels. They rank as the most remarkable and far-reaching of the NEH–sponsored endeavors. While Congress specifically authorizes and earmarks funds in the NEH appropriation process for award to the councils, the NEH chairperson has final authority in devising standards and conditions for the award of funds.

Humanities councils are boards made up of scholars, members of the public, and gubernatorial appointees. Councils are charged with developing plans that serve the people of their states. Great innovators, the councils have pioneered programs that successfully engage grassroots audiences, including library-based reading and discussion programs, exhibitions, oral histories, lecture series, family reading programs, a modern Chautauqua movement, book festivals, cultural tourism, community symposia, and the electronic state encyclopedia. They have also stimulated significant levels of public involvement by college and university humanities faculty, who serve as project scholars in council-funded programs. One noticeable byproduct of the councils' work has been the creation of a substantial base of public support for, and involvement in, the humanities.

NEH has acquired a reputation for excellence, and for the most part it has remained above the political fray. Still, its fortunes have been subject to some political wildfires. In the first year of President Ronald Reagan's administration, the Office of Management and Budget targeted both NEH and NEA for 50 percent reductions (they were cut 14 percent) amidst charges of "politicization." Later that same year the Senate confirmed the president's nomination of William Bennett, a critic of NEH and current trends in humanities scholarship, as chairperson.

The off-year election of 1994 swept the Republicans into power in the House and the Senate. When the 104th Congress convened in January, the new Republican House leadership slated both agencies, along with public television and radio, for elimination. Strengthened, opponents pointed to some of the controversial grants made by NEA as a rationale for elimination. Two former NEH chairs, William Bennett and Lynne Cheney, testified that NEH had become politically tainted. Other opponents included some members of Congress who resisted any federal role at all in the funding of culture.

That neither agency was eliminated (after some dramatic up-or-down votes in the House) reflected the presence of bipartisan support for NEH and the state humanities councils. Key was the public outcry against elimination at the grassroots level and NEH's record of accomplishment that held it in good stead with congressional leaders. The cost was staggering, however. NEH sustained a cut of 34 percent and NEA 40 percent, among the most severe reductions of any federal agency in the 1996 budget year. In 1981 NEH funding was $151.3 million, and NEA funding was $158.8 or $1.35 per capita. In 1996 funding for both endowments dropped to $110 million and $99.5 million, respectively, or about $.80 per capita—a cost even greater when the dollar's valuation since 1981 is factored.

Subsequent developments signal that a corner may have been turned. Consecutive budget increases in 1999 and 2000—and these in the Republican-dominated House and Senate—followed President Clinton's nomination of William Ferris as NEH chairperson in 1997. In 2001 President George W. Bush nominated Bruce Cole for NEH chairperson. A professor of art history and a former member of the National Council, Cole was a knowledgeable advocate of the endowment and the humanities councils.

In their histories NEH and NEA have traced the tension between public funding and private vision. Joined at the legislative hip by the original authorizing legislation, the agencies have experienced conflicts that reflect political and intellectual currents in society and Congress and issues surrounding the appropriateness of federal sponsorship, especially in the arts. While these tensions are not likely to end, the maturation of the agencies and the continuing education of the publics they serve would seem to have placed the necessity of a federal role beyond question. Proponents who rank NEH with the National Science Foundation advocate funding for NEH and NEA equal to the need.


Commission on the Humanities. Report. New York: American Council of Learned Societies, Council of Graduate Schools in the United States, and United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, 1964.

Miller, Stephen. Excellence and Equity: The National Endowment for the Humanities. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.

National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965 (Public Law 89-209).


See alsoFederal Agencies ; National Endowment for the Arts .

About this article

United States. National Endowment for the Humanities

All Sources -
Updated Aug 08 2016 About content Print Topic


United States. National Endowment for the Humanities