Coping With Democracy, Coping with the Culture War
In 1965, at the height of the Great Society, when there was also a consensus about the importance of the humanities to edify American life, Congress established a federal agency to support them: the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH). Shortly thereafter arose a sea change in scholarship and education in the humanities, which by the 1980s became an issue in the broader U.S. culture wars. Many scholars and intellectuals became sharply divided over such questions as the authors and books to prioritize and include in liberal arts curricula, modes of interpretation of texts, and perspectives on the goodness (or lack thereof) to be found in Western civilization and American history. This policy history examines how, in this changing context, the NEH has managed to endure and how it has interpreted and carried out its mandate to support the humanities. It is divided into two parts. Part I tells the story of how the NEH has maintained itself; how it has survived attempts at termination, achieved budget increases and sustained losses, and how it has set its budgetary priorities. This analysis of organizational maintenance traces the evolution of the national debate over federal funding for culture, looking at how the major political parties have changed position on this issue over time. It examines how the NEH built a clientele, the state humanities councils, to bolster its support in Congress. And it looks at how changes in party positioning and related developments in the culture war effectively empowered that clientele—with the effect of helping save the agency when threatened with abolishment, but also giving that clientele greater influence over the NEH’s policies and budgetary priorities. Part II explains how the NEH’s internal bureaucratic structure has operated during the culture wars. When the agency was founded, Congress established a structure with the goal of empowering the NEH to make decisions on the basis of nonpolitical expertise in the humanities, assuming that the agency would need to be able to resist pressures to award grants to favored constituencies at the expense of merit. Part II analyzes how that structure has operated in a different and wholly unanticipated context, one in which many of those who could claim the mantle of expertise have become polarized on issues such as multiculturalism and the importance of “great books.” It compares the bureaucratic structure at the NEH with the structures and practices that have evolved at other federal grant-making agencies: the National Endowment for the Arts and National Science Foundation. The analysis shows how the structure at NEH has enabled Democratic and Republican appointed chairmen to push the substance of grant-making in progressive and traditional directions, respectively, despite continuity of formal rules, procedures, and professional staff. This dissertation concludes with an assessment of what can be expected from the NEH in regard to its durability, budgetary priorities, and grant-making under Republican and Democratic administrations.