Branding the Humanities for the Modern Public—and Congress

The National Endowment for the Humanities is recasting its image before it has to ask a skeptical Congress for money.

The National Endowment for the Humanities, an independent federal agency that promotes and funds humanities projects and research throughout the country, is rebranding itself in order to stay relevant to everyday Americans—and seem more attractive to the members of Congress who fund it.

The 50-year-old agency is playing up the role of humanities in public life and its relevance to the general public in an initiative its chairman announced in a Thursday speech. NEH will begin awarding grants specifically to projects and programs that are of broad interest, and will fund scholars working on humanities books "intended to reach a wide readership."

The shift addresses long-standing criticism that the humanities are alienating—too academic and exclusively professional—by emphasizing how the field can help answer questions that matter to most Americans, NEH Chairman William "Bro" Adams told National Journal.

Those criticisms have been leveled against expenditures that seem, on their face, a bit absurd. For example, the Popular Romance Project received almost $1 million from the endowment to "explore the fascinating, often contradictory origins and influences of popular romance as told in novels, films, comics, advice books, songs, and Internet fan fiction," according to Rep. Tom Coburn's 2013 "Wastebook," in which the lawmaker catalogues what he considers poor uses of government funds.

NEH defended that project in a statement to Government Executive, saying that it was part of a project built up of three grants that had "received high marks from peer-review panels that include leading scholars in history, philosophy, cultural studies, and other humanities disciplines."

Adams is working to bring the humanities back into the public eye and connect it to common experiences. "I wanted to demonstrate, and encourage others to demonstrate, that the humanities have a lot of relevance to things that most Americans care a lot about in one way or another," Adams said. "Encouraging humanities scholars to step out a little bit and to be more publicly facing, I think, is a good thing for the country and the humanities."

The pivot could also help secure continued funding in a potentially unfriendly congressional climate. Since the 2008 economic downturn, Congress has hunted for ways to trim the national budget and shed costs. The NEH is a prime target for lawmakers such as Paul Ryan, the incoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, looking for a few million dollars in savings. Ryan wrote  NEH and its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, out of his 2015 budget proposal entirely.

"The activities and content funded by these agencies go beyond the core mission of the federal government," the budget read. "These agencies can raise funds from private-sector patrons, which will also free them from any risk of political interference."

NEH's focus on its public relevance could be a defense mechanism against lawmakers who see little use for public funding of the humanities, says Stephen Kidd, executive director of the National Humanities Alliance, an association that advocates for humanities funding. "On the one hand, it's just the right thing to be doing," says Kidd. "At the same time, from our perspective as an advocacy organization, it is tremendously helpful to be making that case and demonstrating the public relevance of the humanities."

Ryan's 2015 budget proposal, which cut off funding for NEH, didn't get picked up in the Senate, which was then controlled by Democrats. President Obama, meanwhile, asked for $146 million for the NEH in his 2015 budget. But now that Republicans control both chambers of Congress, the funding race might get tougher. "Traditionally, Democrats have certainly been more supportive across the board," Kidd says.

Adams is careful not to say whether he approaches Democrats and Republicans differently. "So far, I've sensed the same degree of sensitivity" from both sides of the aisle, he says. But, he admits, "I haven't experienced the new Congress, so I'm not sure what to anticipate."

Ryan's office could not be reached for comment on this story, so it's not clear if the new NEH strategy is going to change his thinking at all.

As NEH positions itself to stay relevant and keep its congressional funding, Adams reflected on the place of the humanities in the modern political discourse. He sees the NEH as a guardian of the country's cultural capital, and the creator of a forum for vibrant debate over the topics of the day: digital privacy, for example, or the ethical implications of the rapidly developing biomedical field.

With NEH's pivot, Adams must entice academics into the forum, even as he fights for the funding to keep its walls up.